Senate Republicans late Thursday released a tax overhaul plan that provides a mix of relief and worry for higher education stakeholders.
The GOP senators are backing a Republican House proposal to impose a 1.4 percent excise tax on investment income at private schools with endowments worth at least $250,000 per full-time student. Analysts say the tax would affect some 60 to 70 private schools, from big names like Harvard University to lesser known liberal arts institutions like Agnes Scott College.
Republicans have been critical of the wealth universities have amassed through fundraising and investment, accusing them of hoarding cash or spending lavishly while families struggle to cover exorbitant college costs. Universities contend that their endowments actually help keep costs down by providing money for financial aid, research, salaries and other expenses.
“The whole notion that somehow this is extra money that’s out there that should be dipped into to enable these other tax cuts is incredibly dispiriting,” said Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott, a women’s college in Decatur, Ga. “We often talk about how we need to make college more affordable for low-income students, diverse students. We’re doing that precisely and using our endowment for it. Now they want to tax it and make it less available for core functions.”
At Agnes Scott, more than 90 percent of its $230 million endowment is earmarked for scholarships, faculty salaries and other expenses. The endowment represents about 40 percent of the school’s operating budget. Kiss estimates that were the excise tax in place last fiscal year, when the school gained about $25 million in value, Agnes Scott would have owed $363,000 in taxes. She points out that the previous year the college lost $17.7 million and that loss resulted in staff cuts.
Another provision in the Senate plan that could harm institutions of higher education is the elimination of certain state and local tax deductions. Critics of the measure say it could raise taxes overall for people in high-tax states such as New York and California, placing pressure on states to cut their own taxes to compensate. And that could reduce revenue for public colleges and universities.
“It effects everybody from the University of Michigan to the most humble, rural community college in the land,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities. “There is a great deal of concern about what that will mean for state funding of public colleges and universities.”
The Senate plan is at odds with the House approach to state and local taxes. House Republicans want to eliminate some of those benefits but allow a deduction of up to $10,000 on property taxes.
The two plans also diverge on a number of other higher education provisions. The Senate Finance Committee wants to leave in place the student loan interest deduction, which lets people repaying their student loans reduce their tax burden by as much as $2,500. According to the Internal Revenue Service, more than 12 million people took advantage of the deduction in 2015. That’s just about 3 in 10 of the 44 million Americans with student loans.
Also absent from the Senate plan is any mention of repealing an exemption that prevents graduate students from paying taxes on the waivers that cover their tuition. Graduate students mobilized in the wake of the House proposal to end that tax benefit. Many complained that counting their tuition as taxable income would result in a tax burden that their stipends could not cover.
The Senate plan also makes no mention of a House proposal to consolidate the three higher-education tax credits — the American Opportunity Tax Credit, Lifetime Learning Credit and Hope Scholarship Credit — into one benefit. But considering the bipartisan support for streamlining those tax credits, the issue will likely remain on the table.