Changing this site’s tagline

Previously, my site tagline was “News, technology, life, and more.”

As of today, it is now “Technology, law, life, and more.”

When I first started this blog in 2008, I labelled it “A blog discussing current events, news, politics, technology, law and more.” Even then, as a high schooler, I was interested in the law—and in the intersection of law and technology.

I distanced myself from law for a while, enticed by opportunities in engineering and medicine, right around the time I was applying to university and completing my first year of undergrad. Mirroring this stage of my life, I removed the keywords “politics” and “law”. I blogged about healthcare-related issues.

As I now decide between two fantastic law schools to attend next year, I’ve realized that my entire path has been leading me to this intersection of law & technology. But no matter where I go, I will always be a technologist first; the order of words in “Technology, law, life, and more” reflects that (and the deliberate Oxford comma).

It was time to update my blog to publicly acknowledge my choice of path in life—indeed, my return to my true passions.

Form 1098-T: an example of international students’ special needs

Blank Form 1098-T

I am not a tax attorney or tax consultant. I’m merely an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Co-Chair of the International Student Advisory Board.

IRS Form 1098-T, which educational institutions issue to students as a tuition statement for tax purposes, is used by many American families to claim educational credits or deductions on their federal tax returns.

Should international students have this form?

It’s complicated. In many situations, yes.

Universities often will choose not to issue this tuition statement to international students because those students can’t do anything with it. ← If I had to write this with footnotes, there would be a million asterisks next to that sentence; keep reading. We’ll return to this question below.

Are international students able to use this form for anything?

Most international students are ineligible to claim those educational credits/deductions because they are nonresident aliens (e.g. F-1 student). Hence, these individuals would not benefit from having the 1098-T.

Some, especially graduate students, may be eligible to claim credits/deductions because…

  1. they are resident aliens per the substantial presence test, particularly after the 5th year of being in the United States;
  2. they are nonresident aliens for immigration, but resident aliens for tax purposes as the spouse of an American citizen or resident alien; or
  3. they are nonresident aliens for both immigration and tax purposes, but eligible dependents of parents who are resident aliens/permanent residents/citizens; those parents are able to claim these credits in certain situations.

IRS Publication 970 explains who is eligible to claim the American Opportunity Credit. Of note: tax-free scholarships and grants affect whether, and how much, you can claim.

Figure 2-2 from IRS Publication 970, illustrating who is eligible to claim the American Opportunity Credit.
Figure 2-2 from IRS Publication 970, illustrating who is an eligible student for the American Opportunity Credit. Note: not all eligible students can claim. See Publication 970 for a flowchart of who is eligible to claim.

I am an international student in the above categories. Can I get a 1098-T from my school?

The IRS says that universities “do not have to file Form 1098-T or furnish a statement for… nonresident alien students, unless requested by the student“. Additionally, they are not required to provide it for “students whose qualified tuition and related expenses are entirely waived or paid entirely with scholarships”.

You must still meet all of the other requirements to get a 1098-T:

  1. Attend an eligible educational institution (college, university, vocational school, or other postsecondary educational institution in §481 of the Higher Education Act)
  2. Have paid qualified tuition and related expenses in that tax year
    • i.e. tuition, fees, course materials required to be enrolled
    • does not include room, board, insurance, medical expenses including student health fees, transportation, and personal/living/family expenses
  3. Receive credit for the completion of course work leading to a postsecondary degree, certificate, or other recognized postsecondary educational credential
    • i.e. most undergraduate bachelors programs and graduate masters and PhDs are fine
    • continuing education is often not included
  4. Be enrolled in any academic period of that tax year (consult IRS instructions for exceptions)
  5. Have provided your SSN or ITIN to the educational institution either through student records or an additional Form W-9S

What are some potential hurdles?

I was in a situation this year where my university did not issue me a 1098-T, and responded to my request with a form letter:

Does every Penn student receive a 1098-T?
Penn does not provide a 1098-T to non-resident aliens, or any student whose qualified charges are fully funded by grant, scholarship or tuition waivers, or any student who was enrolled in non-credit courses during the academic year.

They additionally stated,

“Though you might have received a 1098t form in the past, going forward as a Canadian citizen you will not receive one.”

As I’ve explained above in this post, this determination was a mistake. It conflates citizenship & immigration status with residency for tax purposes, and ignores the possibility that someone else other than me may be eligible to claim the credit.

Furthermore, even if I were a nonresident alien ineligible to claim the credit, nothing in the IRS regulations for Form 1098-T gives the educational institution the right, responsibility, or power to determine whether I might be eligible to claim the credit; nor does it permit them to deny a Form 1098-T to a nonresident alien’s request.

I’m not a lawyer.

Neither are the people at Penn who decided initially that I wouldn’t get a statement. But apparently I’m capable of reading the IRS documents and figuring out for myself what I’m entitled to.

What does this situation reveal about international students?

First, on the superficial level, this situation reveals that immigration status and residency for immigration purposes differs from tax status and residency for tax purposes. Clearly, not all employees who handle these cases are aware of these stipulations.

More importantly…

Even if we define international students to be non-citizens and non-permanent residents of the United States, this constituency is large, diverse, and varied, with complex needs based on their individual families’ statuses. It is a mistake to define broad, indiscriminate policies that treat all international students identically.

If you think I’ve made a mistake in this post, or wish to disagree with my conclusion here, I’d like to hear from you. Comment below or send me an email using the contact form.

Taxes

I don’t hate taxes. I just hate filing taxes.

The IRS and the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue have made perhaps the most convoluted forms and instructions I’ve ever used. No wonder tax preparation software is so popular.

Also, WHY in the world would Pennsylvania make people round to the nearest dollar for all amounts? It’s a prescription for inaccuracy and accumulated rounding. I’m sure there are accountants out there cringing at the very thought.

The easiest way to clean up eraser shavings

Every pencil-and-eraser user’s greatest annoyance is getting rid of eraser shavings. The top YouTube result for “how to remove eraser shavings” is a rarely-viewed video (~300 views right now) showing the use of a compressed air canister:

No, that’s not how you do it!

Using compressed air to blow eraser shavings, or the simpler equivalent of blowing them off one’s desk… only move eraser shavings to the ground, where they will remain until you vacuum the floor. I don’t call that cleaning.

In the case that you don’t have a breadcrumb-type, portable handheld vacuum, try following my advice.

My solution: lint rollers

Lint roller on a cat

Yes, these things.

Roll one gently across the surface of a desk, and they’ll clean up eraser shavings as well as some of the dust. Peel off the sheet when you’re done and the eraser shavings will follow, into the trash, where they belong.

Another neat cleaning application

You can also use your favourite lint roller to remove dust and particles from your mousepad!

Reflections on Penn

I’ve been attending classes for nearly three weeks here at the University of Pennsylvania, and in this short month I have already experienced many aspects of college life: meeting new people, making new friends, learning new things, trying new things, seeing new places, and so on… (This post was originally drafted in September 2011 but has been revised for December 2011; the new intro follows.)

Update (January 28, 2012): I’ve decided to remove password protection from this post and open it up to the world.

Update (December 2014): I’ve updated some of the campus photos, added links, and updated the objective factual statistics.

I just completed my first semester at the University of Pennsylvania. The past three months have brought me many joys: new friends, new experiences, and new knowledge. It’s been a rollercoaster of sorts—the cycles of stress due to impending exams, strange sleeping patterns, and a litany of decisions from picking courses to prioritizing assignments. It has been, however, rewarding.

College Hall, College Green, University of Pennsylvania

For those who have not yet left the warmth and comfort of a family home, the most important thing to know is that university life is quite unlike high school life. (You probably knew that already, but I wanted to confirm it nevertheless.) Yes, there will still be classes with people you know, but lectures are much bigger, and it is entirely possible that TAs and professors will grade your papers/tests without ever meeting you face to face. Of course, university life is also different in that you will be running your own life. I’ll elaborate on this later.

For those who are experiencing university for the first time as well, it will be interesting to compare your experiences to mine. Every university has its own unique atmosphere, level of academic rigour, diversity of students, breadth of opportunities, and social climate. Of course, there are some common traits, such as students’ immense freedom, increased responsibilities (not only in time management, but in eating well, shopping for basic living needs, doing laundry, etc).

To anyone who is reading this post, I want to make it clear that anything subjective I write is only my personal opinion. My perception of Penn, or of college life, may differ significantly from that of someone else in a different social circle, program of study, or undergraduate school; it may also differ from that of someone who is living a (virtually) identical life. Even if I am experiencing something joyful at Penn, I cannot guarantee that you would make the same conclusions after the same experiences. The same goes for anything I complain about. Still, this post will contain objective information about the educational experience at the University of Pennsylvania.

Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania

Notice of Americanism: I will use the term ‘college’ to refer to four-year institutions, like the University of Pennsylvania, interchangeably with the term ‘university.’ Don’t let this confuse you, my non-American reader.

Let’s jump right into how I feel about life at university in general.

Continue reading “Reflections on Penn”

My experience with American health care

Right now*, I stand among several dozen patients at Health Center #3, operated by the Philadelphia city government to provide clinical care to residents in a way that is available even to those without insurance or wealth. I’ve nearly been waiting for two hours for a quick skin test.

My alternative is Student Health Service, on another edge of campus, where there is a comfortable environment, shorter waiting times, and probably better trained personnel.

Instead of taking advantage of the benefits afforded to me by my student health insurance plan, a consequence of my attendance at the University of Pennsylvania, I chose this clinic because I could get the test done on an earlier date. I imagined it wouldn’t be as great of a place as SHS, or the expansive, top-tier hospitals of Penn Medicine, but what I am experiencing has convinced me, even more so than I thought before, of the epic failures of the American health care system.

* This post has since been revised and reformatted, although it was initiated during my time in the clinic.

[acm-tag id=”468×60″]

A comparison

Those who are fortunate enough to have employer- or school-sponsored health insurance may have access to HMO hospitals, clinics, and doctors.

Those who attend a comprehensive university like mine may have access to the combined resources of a student health clinic and a set of university hospitals merely a block away.

Those who are in the lower strata of income and status, or whose recent unemployment leaves them uninsured, are relegated to public institutions such as these health centers, left to understaffed clinics, long wait times, and expensive, unaffordable medications. Some of these people are also caught outside the eligibility criteria of governmental programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

I’m from Canada

If timing weren’t an issue, I would just do this skin test back at home in Ontario, Canada. Sure, the skin test itself might not be covered by the provincial OHIP program, but at least every resident (after a certain number of months of residence) has access to physicians and walk in clinics at no basic charge beyond their taxes; those who are below the low-income cutoff might even pay $0 in federal and/or provincial taxes.

There is no such thing as a general practitioner who will turn you away because you “belong” to another unaffiliated insurance company. Low income citizens do not have to go to a crowded government “health center” for basic medical care; any privately-operated walk-in clinic, or a family doctor who is accepting new patients, will do. The UK also demonstrates how access to prescription medicine can be broadened.

Even those who are insured in the US are shocked when they find the cost of health care to be much higher than budgeted.

  • Students on our private university-organized insurance plan still must pay a $100 co-pay to go to the emergency room, although the co-pay is waived under restrictive conditions
  • There’s a co-pay of $35 for an X-ray diagnostic test. I had a chest X-ray done as a matter of an annual physical examination over the summer in Canada, and it was covered by OHIP.
  • Flu vaccinations are $24 (at least) in the vicinity of this university. While private health insurance may cover the cost, it’s surprising that this basic tool of public health isn’t free; municipal governments in Ontario almost universally administer them at no charge, and they are available through doctors’ offices, public health clinics, walk-in clinics, and even some pharmacies.

Even if we forget entirely about how much this sucks compared to medical care in Canada—which admittedly has its own issues—the disparities in access to, and quality of, health care between classes here in the United States should be appalling.

Dr. David Himmelstein of The Cambridge Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and his colleagues, authored a paper in the International Journal of Health Services in 2004 on the inefficiencies in the American health care system. One of the most potent conclusions is summarized in the abstract:

The United States wastes more on health care bureaucracy than it would cost to provide health care to all its uninsured … Only a single-payer national health insurance system could garner these massive administrative savings, allowing universal coverage without any increase in total health spending.

He also concludes that, in the US in 1999, “administrative spending consumed at least 31.0 percent of health spending… [i]n contrast, administrative costs in Canada… are about 16.7 percent of health spending.” I imagine some people are profiting from this spending.

Closing

I am a student, who, as a matter of circumstance (i.e. parents’ hard work) and fortune, have access to one of the top hospital systems in America. Not everyone is as fortunate. And it takes a bit of altruism to be able to stand up in a position like this and advocate on behalf of those who can’t.

Experience has shown that a weak populace is easier to rule over. One wonders if the goal of weakening the populace, especially the poor, is the reason that America continues to fail at reforming health care.