OF THE unparalleled advantages the United States has over other countries, its dynamic, well-funded system of colleges and universities is among the most significant, drawing talent from around the globe, educating future leaders and producing innovations that drive the modern economy. House Republicans on Thursday took an alarming step toward eroding this advantage. The assault on higher education is one of the less- examined unwise provisions in a tax bill full of unwise provisions.
Recognizing the importance of high-level teaching and research, generations of U.S. leaders have refrained from taxing elements of the country’s unique public-private system, and colleges and universities have built educational models around these breaks. For example, the graduate students who do much of the research and teaching at major universities often get their tuition waived, and they do not have to pay tax on that forgone tuition. This enables students who are not independently wealthy to pursue graduate education in science, engineering and other fields that will shape the future economy.
Many graduate students, who might receive only $20,000 in actual cash per year, could not cope if they suddenly had to pay income taxes on $50,000 of waived tuition. The best international students would no doubt look to attend graduate school outside the United States, preventing the country from attracting and keeping future innovators. No doubt some of the best American students would leave, too.
Yet this fate is exactly what the GOP tax bill the House approved Thursday would provoke in its provision insisting that graduate students treat tuition waivers as taxable income. Thankfully, this bad idea is absent from Senate Republicans’ tax bill. But the Senate bill contains other provisions that would undermine the nation’s colleges and universities.
Both bills would slap a 1.4 percent excise tax on investment income that universities earn on endowments that Republicans deem to be too large. Advocates for this change insist that rich universities should not take advantage of tax breaks in order to sit on ever-expanding piles of cash but rather should spend their resources on students. Reducing universities’ capability to pay for their operations — including student financial aid — hardly seems an effective way of doing this. In fact, though the provision would mainly hit elite institutions, they are generally the ones that offer the most tuition aid to students from needy — and even securely middle-class — families.
Over a decade, the endowment excise tax would raise nearly $3 billion, a relatively insignificant amount. Meanwhile, Republicans would either scale back or eliminate the estate tax, which would cost as much as $172 billion, an expensive giveaway that would help only the wealthiest of heirs. As an expression of GOP priorities, the trade-offs found in the GOP tax bills are repugnantly eloquent.
Some conservatives have in recent decades become increasingly leery of the country’s colleges and universities, caricaturing these centers of learning and invention as little more than radical left-wing safe spaces. Critiquing campus culture, particularly on questions of free speech, is legitimate. But financially undermining these institutions and their independence would be destructive to the future well-being of the nation.