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Higher education prepares for battle on tax plan

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On Friday, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren called the plan “completely backwards on higher education.”

By Globe Staff 

Colleges and universities in Massachusetts and across the country began mobilizing Friday to fight elements of the Republican congressional tax plan, which they warned could make earning a degree more expensive for students and families.

The federal tax overhaul, unveiled on Thursday, calls for a tax on some private college endowments, eliminates the student loan interest deduction for borrowers, and even nixes a deduction that sports fans use to buy season tickets for college basketball and football games.

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“There will be a lot of blocking and tackling in the coming weeks,” said Michael Armini, a senior vice president of external affairs at Northeastern University, referring to the lobbying colleges will do in an attempt to alter the tax package. “We don’t want tax policies that create disincentives for people to pursue a college degree.”

Trade organizations that represent colleges and universities promised to get their donors, alumni, and students talking to their legislators about the potential pitfalls of the tax proposal.

They argue the tax plan is balanced on the back of higher education at a time when universities are more important than ever in ensuring that the United States competes in a global economy.

“They are taking away from the schools the money that is targeted to students and sending it to the federal government,” said Steven Bloom, a lobbyist for the American Council on Education.

Colleges and universities may already have some allies. On Friday, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren called the plan “completely backwards on higher education.”

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“By eliminating deductions for college and student loan expenses, the GOP will increase the burden on young people already struggling with student debt,” Warren said in a statement. “And nonprofit college endowments should fund things like tuition reduction, basic research, and scholarships for students — not giant tax cuts for rich Republican donors and giant corporations.”

The $1.51 trillion plan to slash taxes for corporations, offer middle-class families some modest relief, and simplify the county’s tax code is likely to come under fierce debate.

The legislation is expected to hurt taxpayers in states with hefty real estate prices and high-income earners, such as Massachusetts, by eliminating deductions for state and local taxes and capping the mortgage interest tax break. The proposal has also fueled resistance among the powerful homebuilding and real estate industries.

Overall, the GOP tax plan is expected to reduce the tax breaks for higher education by $65 billion in the next decade, according to Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation.

In a written analysis of the tax plan, Republican lawmakers said that many of the education-related tax breaks overlap and are confusing, and defended the new tax on endowments.

“Endowments at many private colleges are large enough that parity requires that they be placed on equal footing with private foundations when it comes to paying a tax on net investment income,” according to the House Ways and Means Committee.

The proposal calls for a 1.4 percent tax on the investment income generated by large, private college endowments. The tax would likely hit more than 150 colleges and universities nationwide, 15 of them based in Massachusetts, including Harvard University, MIT, and Amherst College, along with less prominent institutions, such as Clark University and the College of the Holy Cross, both in Worcester, according to estimates by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Harvard, with a $37 billion endowment, declined to comment on the potential costs of the excise tax. MIT, which has a $15 billion endowment, referred questions to its trade organization.

Holy Cross, which has a $681 million endowment, cautioned that students might have to bear the increased costs of some of the proposed changes.

“The Republican tax plan as it is proposed would have a negative impact on college affordability and would force most institutions to become more dependent on tuition,” Holy Cross said in a statement.

While colleges argue that their endowments help them reduce tuition costs, provide more financial aid to low-income students, and fund cutting-edge research, critics say they amplify the inequities in higher education.

Historically, the endowments weren’t subject to taxes because Congress considered universities to be in the public interest and serving a public good, said Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and the former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

But when nearly three-quarters of the nation’s 18 million college students are enrolled in community colleges or public universities, yet a small group of private colleges that educate a fraction of students hold most of the wealth, it creates a lopsided system, Schneider said.

Schneider has long advocated for a sliding tax rate on endowments over $500 million with the proceeds placed in a competitive fund to help community colleges.

“When you’re talking about such vast inequality in resources, you have to ask if it’s in the public interest anymore,” Schneider said.

Colleges and universities unaffected by the endowment tax proposal — which hits only institutions with more than 500 students and investment income of $100,000 for each full-time student — said there are other provisions in the Republican bill that are just as worrisome.

The plan cuts tax benefits to student loan borrowers, professionals who return to college to upgrade their skills, and students who receive tuition assistance from their employers.

Borrowers have been able to deduct up to $2,500 in interest payments on their student loans from their tax bill. That has helped eased the debt burden of going to college. More than 11 million tax filers take advantage of the deduction, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.

The average savings of the deduction to taxpayers who used it this year was just over $200, according to the committee.

Still, it’s difficult to say how some of these changes will affect individual taxpayers, said Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

While taxpayers may lose the student loan interest deduction, they may benefit from the doubling of the standard deduction under the proposal, Delisle said.

“This is a massive, complicated tax bill,” Delisle said.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@
globe.com

Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.