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Column: Tax plan hurts college students

Mark S. Schlissel and Michael V. Drake

The Tax Reform and Jobs Act contains provisions that would make it harder for students to earn a college degree at a time in which the value of higher education has never been greater — to students, families and to our nation.

Young people with bachelor’s degrees stand to earn on average nearly $1 million more in their lifetimes than high school graduates, and states with the highest rates of college attainment are among those with the fastest-growing economies. Throughout the past century, higher education has served as a key driver of social mobility and economic growth in American society.

Provisions in the bill undermine students by ending the tax benefits that are designed to make education more affordable.

The U.S. Senate will take up its version of the bill soon, and we urge the passage of a smarter tax reform bill, one that that protects the interests — and the aspirations — of our students.

The House bill would repeal current tax incentives, including the Student Loan Interest Deduction (which in 2014 helped 12 million taxpayers), the tax-exempt status of tuition waivers for graduate students serving as teaching and research assistants (which helped close to 145,000 people in 2011-12), and the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses.

This means interest on student loans would be treated just like credit card interest — neither would be deductible, at a time when many are struggling to repay their student loans. Graduate students who work their way through school by serving as research or teaching assistants receive tuition waivers that would be taxed. And students and parents from families with moderate incomes will no longer be able to deduct up to $4,000 in qualified higher education expenses from their taxable income.

The House bill would also repeal or devalue key credits that help low- and middle-income students, including the Lifetime Learning Credit, the Hope Scholarship Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit. The lower-income students who use these credits are those who can least afford to pay more for their educations.

Another provision of the House bill would repeal the tax exemption for education assistance provided by employers, also known as tuition remission. Both employers and their workers stand to lose here. When employers recognize talent and growth potential in an employee, they can sponsor that individual’s further education. Taxing these educational benefits will prevent many of these workers from moving up the ladder and becoming more valuable to their employers, and to our economy.

These aspects of the current federal tax code make it possible for more people with talent and a strong work ethic to earn a college or advanced degree. Our universities are doing their part to keep college affordable as well.

The Ohio State Tuition Guarantee freezes tuition, fees, and room and board for incoming first-year students for four years. Ohio State also provides aid to ensure the full cost of tuition and fees is covered for all in-state students on the Columbus campus who qualify for Pell Grants. By 2020, the university will have provided nearly $200 million in need-based aid to students through efficiencies and innovative funding.

The University of Michigan’s Go Blue Guarantee offers free tuition for four years of undergraduate study on the Ann Arbor campus for in-state students from families making up to $65,000 per year. Increases in financial aid and restraints on tuition growth mean that it actually costs less to attend Michigan and Ohio State today than it did 10 years ago for many in-state undergraduates who receive need-based financial aid.

Our affordability commitment is only possible because of the generosity of our donors. We also urge our elected leaders to preserve the tax benefits of charitable giving.

As state support for public higher education has diminished, universities have relied more and more on private philanthropy to fund scholarships and support education and research programs. This trend has been decades in the making, as universities increased fund-raising in response to state legislatures diverting tax dollars away from higher education.

Drastically changing the tax code now would jeopardize that bargain. But preserving the federal income tax deduction for charitable giving would continue to encourage donors to support the priorities they feel passionate about, like education.

Individual donors are also significant contributors to university endowments, which help fund libraries, labs, arts programs and many other educational activities in addition to financial aid. The House and Senate bills concoct a new tax on endowments at certain private colleges and universities that will take investment returns on donor gifts and redirect them elsewhere.

Last weekend, the two of us joined millions of Michigan and Ohio State fans worldwide in cheering on our respective football teams. The football rivalry between our two great public universities stretches back to 1897 and captures the attention of generations of Buckeyes and Wolverines.

As leaders of those two universities, we hope that the needs of future generations are also worthy of attention and support. When it comes to ensuring that our students can contribute to the intellectual and economic growth of our society, we are on the same team.

We have faith in a brighter and more prosperous future for our nation. Students from all walks of life and all family backgrounds will lead the way in making that future a reality — if we enact tax reforms that continue to support their educational dreams.

Mark S. Schlissel is president of the University of Michigan. Michael V. Drake is president of The Ohio State University.