Newly Graduated Professor Goes to Work for Graduate Students

Posted: March 8, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Matthew Cronin can sympathize with graduate students. A recent PhD graduate in organizational behavior from Carnegie Mellon University, Cronin suffered the long hours of study and near poverty typical of grad student life. Now, as assistant professor in the School of Management at Mason, Cronin hopes to alleviate some of the burden on other graduate students in his role as advisor to the Coalition for an Affordable and Accessible Graduate Education.

The coalition, a movement to broaden the tax exemptions on graduate and professional scholarships and stipends, was formed about three years ago by members of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students. The association, along with individual universities and higher education groups, is working to make graduate and professional education in the United States available to anyone with the desire and skills to pursue it. Last year, the coalition had its biggest success when Rep. Phil English of Pennsylvania introduced a bill into the U.S. House of Representatives voicing the coalition’s concerns. This bill, the Higher Education Affordability and Equity Act (HEAEA), did not get enough support in Congress the first time around, but it will be re-introduced this month.

Cronin became involved with the coalition as president of the Graduate Student Assembly at Carnegie Mellon because the issue of higher education finance was close to his heart. Working with Alik Widge, the coordinator of the campaign, Cronin helped gather interested graduate students from all over the country to travel to Washington, D.C., for a two-day lobbying session with members of Congress. Because the students came from all over and had varying degrees of experience with lobbying-some had no prior knowledge at all-Cronin developed training sessions to make the lobbying more effective.

The training sessions Cronin devised help the graduate students understand everything from how a bill is passed to how to argue one’s point effectively. The sessions are often jam-packed with information because time is limited, so Cronin makes sure to assign people to specific roles to make the meetings more effective and to train students “as they go.”

“We are educating congressmen on higher education issues, and at the same time educating graduate students involved in policy. It’s a win-win situation,” Cronin says.

Now, the coalition is meeting with members of the House and Senate to try to win support of the HEAEA when it is re-introduced. If it passes, the bill would expand the tax-exempt treatment of all scholarships (graduate and undergraduate) by expanding the definition of “qualified educational expenses” to include room, board, and special-needs services. This would make many graduate student stipends exempt from federal tax. It would also include provisions to make student loan interest more tax-deductible, increase contributions to education savings accounts, and generally make higher education more affordable at all levels.

“Financing a graduate education can be a bit daunting,” says Tiffany Bludau, a PhD student in the Industrial/Organizational Psychology Program at Mason who is involved with the coalition. “By the time one finishes undergrad, the thought of taking on more loans to finance an advanced degree seems very scary. If you are offered a scholarship or stipend, this is often not enough to live by—especially here in the Northern Virginia area.”

Bludau attended a lobbying day in Washington, D.C., last month, meeting with legislative assistants and congressmen from her home state of Texas. “All in all, I feel positive about the experience,” says Bludau. “Everyone we met with was very supportive of education. If the opportunity arises, I will definitely try and do this again—and next time, I’ll make sure to bring more Mason students! It was such a great opportunity to talk to people about an issue I feel strongly about, and it made me feel as though I had a small part in getting something passed that would benefit students in higher education.”

Graduate students interested in joining the coalition can contact Cronin at for more information. The coalition is also looking for a graduate student studying economics or another related field to do a revenue score, which is an initial breakdown of what the tax break would cost the government if the act were passed. More information about the bill, the coalition, and how to get involved can be found at the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students web site or the coalition’s web site.

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