By Ben Miller
November 20, 2017

Every year, millions of college students face sky-high tuition and burdensome student debt. Now they can also look forward to funding handouts for millionaires, billionaires, and corporations.

The tax reform legislation passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives eliminates nearly $65 billion in credits, deductions, and exclusions that help students and their families afford tuition and student loan payments, go back for retraining, and pursue doctoral degrees. These cuts would pay for seven years of reduced taxes on the estates of multi-millionaires.

These cuts would take away the ability for nearly 12 million Americans to deduct interest paid on their student loans. But two particular groups, workers going back for retraining and graduate students, would be particularly hurt by paying for tax-free inheritances to the children of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump.

Students seeking retraining opportunities lose out in two key ways. First, the House bill takes $11.2 billion over a decade away from low- and middle-income students and their families by eliminating the Lifetime Learning Credit. This benefit provides up to $2,000 a year, and is the only higher education tax credit that funds training opportunities that are not part of a degree program—such as workers who lose their job and go back to college for a few classes. Second, the House bill takes away a provision that allows students to not pay taxes on up to $5,250 in training paid for by their employer, making it more expensive for employees to improve their skills.

Graduate students are also big losers under the House tax bill. Unlike the other major higher education tax credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit can be claimed beyond the first four years of college, making it available to reimburse tuition paid for graduate study. In exchange for losing this benefit, the House bill offers a meager consolation prize—the ability to claim a different credit for the fifth year of college study at a value $750 less than the maximum Lifetime Learning credit.

Other changes to tax benefits for graduate education could upend doctoral education in this country in a way that might also spike costs for undergraduate students. It would do this by ending a provision that currently allows roughly 145,000 graduate students to not pay taxes on tuition waivers given out by their institution.

Almost 30% of students pursuing Ph.D.s receive some sort of tuition waiver, according to an analysis of data from The National Center for Education Statistics. This is typically part of a package that also includes a stipend of $20,000 to $30,000 a year in exchange for serving as a teaching assistant or providing research support. These waivers make it possible for students to earn doctoral degrees without massive debt burdens they would almost certainly never be able to repay.

By contrast, taxing graduate school tuition waivers would cause students to lose large portions of their stipends to tax payments on tens of thousands of dollars in waived tuition. That change would turn many stipends into poverty wages. It could also lead to large reductions in the number of students pursuing doctorates and serving as teaching assistants.

 

Dissuading grad students from serving as teaching assistants would wreak havoc in the introductory courses undergraduate students have to pass. Teaching assistants make large lecture classes viable by leading discussions sections and sometimes teach their own classes too. Losing them would decrease the number of students that could be served in these must-take courses. Alternatively, if schools react to the change in the tax code by increasing the stipends given to teaching assistants, undergraduate tuition increases would likely foot the bill.

Fortunately, these cuts are not quite a done deal yet. The current version of the Senate’s tax legislation does not make any of these higher education cuts. That means there’s still a chance these benefits might be saved.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for federal budgets. The House and Senate tax bills anticipate a disastrous increase in the federal deficit of $1.4 trillion or more over the next decade. One way or another, it’s a good bet today’s students and young adults will be paying the price for years to come.

Ben Miller is the Senior Director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.

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