Tax Benefits at Risk for Colleges, Student Borrowers

Republican tax reform plan would tax large endowments and limit or kill key deductions, including one for student loan interest and another for graduate students.

November 3, 2017
 
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The sweeping tax overhaul released by House Republicans Thursday would kill or limit key benefits for many colleges, students and borrowers paying off student loans.

House GOP leaders released this plan about half a year after President Trump issued a set of broad but vague principles for tax reform legislation. The proposal released Thursday slashes corporate tax rates, reduces the number of income tax brackets and repeals taxes on large estates.

To pay for revenue that would be lost, the plan would kill many tax breaks, some of them popular in higher education.

The plan would impose a 1.4 percent excise tax on college endowments at private universities valued at $100,000 or more per full-time student. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities said Friday it estimated more than 150 institutions would be affected by the proposed tax based on 2014-15 endowment values.

The bill would double the standard individual tax deduction, meaning much weaker incentives for charitable contributions to colleges, higher education groups say. Phasing out the estate tax, they say, would also have a negative impact on charitable contributions.

The GOP plan would end student loan interest rate deductions and eliminate state and local income tax deductions, potentially encouraging spending cuts in states that are among the biggest supporters of public higher education.

Republican lawmakers said the legislation would eliminate costly deductions that drive up taxes and said it would deliver "unprecedented simplicity" for tax filers.

"Our legislation is focused entirely on growing our economy, bringing jobs back to our local communities, increasing paychecks for our workers and making sure Americans are able to keep more of the money they earn," said Rep. Kevin Brady, the GOP chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Higher ed groups, though, say that provisions affecting the sector, taken together, would make a postsecondary education less attainable while putting colleges' finances on shakier ground. Ted Mitchell, the president of the American Council on Education, noted that the committee's own summary of the legislation showed it would increase the cost to students of attending college by $65 billion between 2018 and 2027.

"Taken in its entirety, the House tax reform proposal released today would discourage participation in postsecondary education, make college more expensive for those who do enroll and undermine the financial stability of public and private, two-year and four-year colleges and universities," Mitchell said in a statement.

Lawmakers have for years talked about taxing large university endowments, partly in response to complaints about the rising cost of college. But higher ed groups say the provision in the House bill (the Senate finance committee is rumored to be considering a similar 2 percent excise tax on endowments of the same size) does nothing to address affordability while redirecting money that would have been spent on students and campuses to the federal government.

That new tax could actually force some institutions to reduce their endowed spending, said Brian Flahaven, senior director for advocacy at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Douglas Webber, an associate professor in Temple University’s economics department, said the endowment proposal over all amounted to a very small tax on a specific group of colleges that "have amassed a disproportionate amount of money despite educating a small fraction of the country's students."

"There are certainly valid arguments against it. The biggest concern is that this could open the door for more burdensome taxes later. But taken alone I just don't think it is a big deal or a bad idea," he said in an email. "However, just because I am comfortable with this particular tax doesn't mean I agree with how the increased revenue would be spent based on the other parts of the GOP tax plan."

Groups like CASE warn that taxing endowment contributions could hurt individuals' incentives to make charitable contributions. They say the same is true of the proposal to double the standard deduction for tax filers. That means the number of taxpayers who would benefit from itemizing deductions -- including listing charitable contributions to entities like colleges and universities -- would drop from 30 percent to 5 percent, Flahaven said.

The group had hoped to see a universal deduction in legislation from the Hill, which would allow taxpayers to subtract charitable contributions from their income before deciding whether they would itemize their tax bill or choose the standard deduction. Flahaven said CASE will work with other charitable groups to push for its inclusion in the Senate bill, as well as to push back on other harmful measures for the sector.

Students -- especially older, part-time and graduate students -- would also see negative consequences from provisions of the Republican proposal, higher ed advocates said. The bill restructures the American Opportunity Tax Credit, eliminating tax benefits for students who take more than five years to graduate, as well as part-time and graduate students. And it repeals the Lifetime Learning Credit, which is used by grad students, workers who need retraining and part-time students and nontraditional undergrads who take more than four years to graduate.

The proposal would also eliminate a provision of the tax code used by many universities to waive the cost of tuition for graduate students filling positions like teaching assistantships. If the proposal were to go through, those institutions wouldn't be able to waive tuition costs without imposing new taxable income on grad students, said Steven Bloom, director of government relations at the American Council on Education.

The legislation would kill another provision that is deeply important to college faculty members and administrators personally: Section 117(d) of the tax code allows employees of nonprofit universities and colleges to exclude from taxable income qualified undergraduate tuition reductions they, or their dependents, receive from their employer (or other colleges with which their institutions have reciprocity). This provision has long been a valued benefit colleges can offer that enables them to recruit employees at lower salaries than they might otherwise need to to compete.

Yet another provision targeted by Republicans would end a tax break for employers who cover up to several thousand dollars in educational costs for their workers.

The repeal of student loan interest deductions would also add hundreds to the cost of paying off loans for individuals in certain income brackets, advocates said.

Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, noted on Twitter that the largest dollar benefits of the deduction go to borrowers in the highest income brackets. But Brianna McGurran, who follows student loan issues for NerdWallet, said the deduction is targeted to those who earn less than $65,000 per year, or $130,000 for a couple filing jointly.

"The more debt you have, the more valuable it is -- and you don’t need to itemize deductions to get it," she said. "When we know that 44 percent of adults can't cover a $400 emergency expense without borrowing money, even the small amount that borrowers in this income bracket can receive from the deduction is meaningful. It can pad savings, reduce debt and contribute to increased financial security. It's simply a reality that many consumers rely on their tax refunds to feel like they're getting ahead."

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