Colleges, students, and higher education groups can breath a small sigh of relief: In putting together the joint GOP tax plan, Republican House and Senate lawmakers have agreed to back off the most controversial of a set of tax proposals that would have drastically changed tuition benefits.
In total, only one big education-related change made it into the GOP tax plan, which was released late on Friday and is aimed at reconciling differences between dueling versions of the tax bill passed by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the tax bill next week.
Experts said last month that proposals in the House version of the tax bill—a package that was much harsher for higher education than its Senate counterpart—would have reduced tax incentives for higher education by nearly $65 billion over 10 years. The Senate bill, on the other hand, made relatively few changes to tuition and student loan tax benefits.
Here's what made it into the combined bill, which President Trump is hoping to sign before the end of the year.
Graduate Student Tuition Waivers
Graduate students often get tuition discounts, known as "waivers," in return for working as teaching or research assistants. House Republicans wanted to begin taxing those discounts as income.
This provision, more than any other education proposal, brought heavy criticism, with graduate students saying their tax bills would multiply for supposed "income" they weren't even receiving. Eight students were arrested during demonstrations last week on Capitol Hill; rallies and walk-outs took place across the country; and op-ed headlines declared the change could “bankrupt graduate students.” Lawmakers were apparently paying attention; the final bill preserves the status quo.
Tax Deduction for Student Loan Interest
The bill passed in the House also drew millennials' ire by eliminating this benefit, which more than 12 million people claimed in 2015, the most recent year available, to offset the interest they've paid on student loans.
Under current tax law, borrowers can deduct up to $2,500 of interest paid on student loans. The maximum benefit to taxpayers is $625 a year, though most people receive much less than that. But anyone who meets the income cutoffs can claim it, regardless of whether they itemize, and borrowers were vocally against.
Senators left the deduction intact, and the final bill does as well.
Endowments at Wealthy Colleges
About that one big change: Both Senate and House versions of the tax bill called for a new tax on some private university endowments, although each had slightly different qualifications. The final version, like the Senate bill, will place a 1.4% excise tax on endowment earnings; it will affect private colleges with more than 500 students and endowments worth at least $500,000 per student. That's fewer than 30 colleges, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, about half as many as would have been affected by the House bill.
A less than 2% tax on investment income may sound small, but nearly all the affected colleges have endowments worth more than a billion dollars. (And four have funds worth more than $20 billion.) And so in years with booming markets, this tax could cost those colleges more than $1 million a year, depending on annual returns. The bill estimates it will bring in $1.8 billion in revenue over a decade.
Colleges, unsurprisingly, criticized all the proposals to tax endowments, saying the move would limit their ability to support vital financial aid, research and other campus operations. Most of the colleges on the list are among the most generous with financial aid.
529 College Savings Plans
College savings plans, named 529 plans, currently allow families to save for college in a tax-free account. As long as the money is used for approved higher education expenses, you don't pay taxes on your earnings or withdrawals.