Editor’s Note: This article was co-written by both authors, but in the voice of Gil Joseph ’25.
Last year, I stumbled upon a daunting, nearly $2,000 bill in my student account. I wasn’t sure how to explain it, but I wasn’t worried. Although there was no way that my parents nor I could afford the bill, I assumed I wouldn’t be expected to pay for it. When I applied to Princeton, I made it clear that my parents could not contribute much to my education here in the United States — Princeton’s sticker price is 20 times my family’s annual income. When I opened my financial aid offer in April 2021, I screamed with joy at the big zero under the expected family contribution section. I immediately decided to spend the next four years here, and I assumed that Princeton would take care of the bill — because that’s what they promised. The University promised that money would not be an obstacle and that I would graduate loan-free. I was wrong to believe them.
The $2,000 tax bill stuck around in my student account. I started getting messages from friends from International Orientation asking if I had noticed a bill, too, and if I had thought about how I would pay it off. They were obviously concerned, but I wasn’t. I confidently believed that the school would cover the bill and tried to reassure them. A few weeks passed and the tax bill was not going away. I slowly began to worry as well. I reached out to upperclassmen, including Mutemwa Masheke ’23, to see how they had dealt with the tax bill in the past. They said they couldn’t get it covered by the University. University administrators I spoke to all said the same thing: “If you can't pay it yourself, you can take out a loan from the University.” I felt defeated, and frankly, betrayed. I still remember what Mutemwa said at that moment: “No, Gil, Princeton is not loan free.”
The bill turned out to be the 14 percent tax rate that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) applies to the portion of some international students’ scholarships that exceed the cost of tuition. As the tax bill for this spring semester looms, more and more students are at risk of taking on more debt. To break the cycle, Princeton must follow Yale’s lead and eliminate the burden of the tax bill by covering it for all international students.
Expenses paid by the University beyond tuition, such as room and board, residential college dues, and travel allowances, are taxed. The tax applies to international students who are not from the countries with treaties with the United States on this subject, which is a list that skews heavily in favor of European countries. The tax is mentioned in financial aid letters to the students the tax applies to, but the University doesn’t explicitly say that the burden of paying the fee is on the student. When Mutemwa reached out to 15 African international student peers, he found that all of them had been surprised by the bill and had taken out loans from the University to pay it off.
The consequences for being unable to pay are drastic: if the student doesn’t pay at least part of the bill, a hold is placed on their student account and they aren’t able to enroll in courses for the following semester. To avoid this, fearful and panicked students sometimes resort to using their personal allowance (intended to cover basic necessities, like books, food, and toiletries) to pay the tax bill that they had no idea was their burden to bear. Other students delay or forgo going home over break to pay the bill. This bill may be part of why so many low-income international students of color stay on campus during the winter break. This happened to Mutemwa: he has not been home to Zambia once in four years at Princeton, and the tax bill is part of the reason. Some have also taken campus jobs for the sole purpose of softening the blow of the tax bill, but the low wages of a student job pale in comparison to the often multi-thousand dollar bill.
There’s no good option to pay the bill outright, so students are forced to take out loans. Princeton loves to brag that every student can graduate without taking on loans. But in practice, this doesn’t apply to low-income international students.
This is a major problem: loans we take on to pay the tax bill influence our decision to pursue paid summer internships in industry and corporate positions rather than professional and personal development opportunities. Ever wondered why many low-income international students pursue industry and corporate internships from their first year? The tax bill is part of that story, too. The burden of the loan also impacts our decision to not return home. Loans also make it more difficult to move home after graduation, where we may get paid less.
After expressing our frustrations to each other, Mutemwa and I decided to work on resolving this issue in collaboration with the relevant departments on campus. The first step in our investigation was to research which peer institutions have done a much better job supporting low-income international students with this tax bill. We learned through emailing other schools’ financial aid offices that at least four institutions (Yale, Macalester, Kalamazoo, and Skidmore) have some sort of mechanism to support students facing these challenges. Yale has a policy that covers this tax bill for high-aid international students all four years. At Princeton, we’ve initiated conversations with various offices on campus, including the Office of Financial Aid, to institute a similar policy. Although they showed an interest in listening to us, consideration of new policies have stalled since October.
The tax bill makes Princeton inequitable and surprisingly inaccessible for many low-income international students, especially low-income students of color. The burden of this tax is significant, and unacceptable. If Princeton is truly concerned with equity, it’s time for them to follow Yale’s lead and take the burden of paying the tax off of international students. And as things stand, Princeton should stop claiming to be loan-free. Low-income international students know the truth — it’s not.
Gil Joseph is a prospective sociology major and a sophomore from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He currently serves as the vice president of the Princeton African Students Association (PASA). Gil can be reached at email@example.com.
Mutemwa Masheke is a senior in the Computer Science Department from Lusaka, Zambia. He currently serves as the vice president of the Society of African Internationals at Princeton (SAIP). Mutemwa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.