The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The House GOP tax bill would raise the cost of college. We can’t let that happen.

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By Ted Mitchell

Colleges and universities create opportunity for individuals, communities and the nation.

Goodwin College, a small school in Connecticut that serves a diverse population and specializes in career-focused programs, funds a pair of initiatives that have helped disadvantaged students raise their GPAs and achieve academic success.

The sprawling University of California system, where 42 percent of undergraduate students are the first in their families to attend college, has launched an effort across its campuses to assist first-generation students and connect them with faculty mentors who have walked in their shoes.

Temple University in Pennsylvania and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities are examining how small-dollar grants can help cash-strapped students from low-income families complete their degrees.

Dreamer Gloria Oduyoye, who was brought to the United States as a one-year-old, is now in her final semester at William & Mary Law School in Virginia, after earning her undergraduate degree at Wesleyan College in Georgia.

There are countless stories of how a college degree is the springboard to economic success and social mobility for millions of Americans, and about how our colleges and universities are working to expand access to a postsecondary education to more students nationwide.

Can and should more be done to expand the higher education pipeline in this country? Of course. But the tax bill under consideration in the House seems poised to put one of our most important engines of social mobility into reverse. The bill would, in one fell swoop, set back by decades the effort to make the cost of college more affordable for individuals from all walks of life.

In addition to proposing to tax some private college and university endowment earnings, restricting access to the tax-exempt bond market and reducing incentives for charitable giving — all of which will have a far-reaching negative impact on higher education — several provisions directly and immediately affect the cost of college to students and their families. The bill eliminates a set of longstanding provisions designed to help a wide range of middle- and lower-income students and their families finance a college education.

For instance, it would end the student loan interest deduction, which allows any individual with income up to $80,000 (or $160,000 on a joint return) repaying student loans to deduct up to $2,500 in student loan interest paid. In 2014, 12 million student loan borrowers benefited from this provision, and eliminating it would mean that, over the next decade, the cost of student loans for borrowers would increase by roughly $24 billion.

The House tax bill also would repeal an important provision meant to exclude tuition waivers and tuition exemptions from taxable income for graduate students. The provision, Section 117(d)(5), reduces the cost of graduate education and mitigates the tax liability of graduate students teaching and researching as part of their academic programs. Roughly 145,000 graduate students benefited from this in 2011-12, the most recent year for which data is available, with roughly 60 percent working in the critical fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

These are just two examples of a number of ways in which the House tax bill raises the cost of college for millions of Americans in total. For instance, many nontraditional students — the fastest growing segment of students in higher education — would lose significant tax benefits they rely upon to help finance their higher education with the elimination of the Lifetime Learning Credit and changes for the worse to the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

Another provision the bill repeals allows an employee to receive up to $5,250 per year in tax-free tuition assistance from his or her employer for any type of educational coursework at the undergraduate or graduate level. Repealing this benefit will not only have implications for employees who utilize the benefit to further their education, but will also create a barrier for employers who want to invest in their workforce.

In all, according to the House Committee on Ways and Means’ own summary of the legislation, this bill would increase the cost to students of attending college by more than $65 billion over the next decade. The bottom line: The House tax revision proposal would discourage participation in postsecondary education and make college more expensive for those who do enroll.

This is not in America’s national interest.

I hope the House changes course. If not, it will be up to the Senate to forge a tax reform measure that offers tax relief to hard-working middle- and lower-income Americans in a way that does not increase college costs and does not make a quality higher education less accessible.

Ted Mitchell is president of the American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,800 college and university presidents and related associations. He was U.S. under secretary of education from May 2014 to January 2017. He has held numerous other education positions, including president of Occidental College.