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The Tax Bill Cometh

February 27, 2014

WASHINGTON -- Tax legislation introduced Wednesday by Republican leaders in the House of Representatives doesn't have a snowball's chance in Miami of becoming law.

But that does not mean that its many provisions related to higher education -- many of which would negatively affect colleges and universities -- don't matter.

"Whether or not this legislation is considered by the current Congress, its proposals are likely to have a long shelf life," said M. Matthew Owens, vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities. "This is concerning because there are several troubling provisions that would adversely affect students’ ability to pay for college, and make it harder for universities to carry out their missions as charitable tax-exempt entities."

Rep. Dave Camp, the Michigan Republican who heads the House Ways and Means Committee, described his Tax Reform Act of 2014 as an attempt to "fix America's broken tax code by lowering tax rates while making the code simpler and fairer for families and job creators." Given the deep divisions in Congress on issues large and small, and the fact that this is an election year, lawmakers are expected to pass few if any major pieces of legislation, virtually ensuring that this measure won't move beyond the House, if that far.

The massive (979-page) bill contains dozens of provisions that matter to colleges, their employees, and their students. Some of the proposals flow from the Internal Revenue Service's recent multiyear review and survey of colleges' financial and tax practices; others draw on widely embraced (and even bipartisan!) policy ideas such as consolidating the numerous education tax breaks.

The most significant would:

  • Combine the various education-related tax breaks into one, making permanent the American Opportunity Tax Credit and making it more refundable (and hence more accessible to low-income students) than the existing higher education credits. The credit would be available only for the first four years of college -- in other words, excluding graduate education.
  • Repeal several tax breaks that help students and families, including the in-school interest deduction on student loans, the exemption for most student loan forgiveness programs, and the popular tax break that flows to employers who pay their employees' education expenses.
  • Make taxable any tuition waiver or remission that college employees (or their children) get from their own or other postsecondary institutions -- a popular benefit for those working in higher education, including graduate students.
  • Limit to $1,200 (in 2014) the amount of a student employee's earnings that are exempted from Social Security tax.
  • Continue to exempt from unrelated business income tax the income that universities derive from research -- but only if the research is made available to the public.
  • Require colleges and other nonprofit organizations to pay tax on royalties that they derive from the sale or licensing of their name or logo, which could have significant implications for college sports programs.
  • Include coaches among the higher education employees whose high salaries can trigger excise taxes for excessive compensation.
  • Eliminate the tax break that allows patrons who buy tickets for college athletic events (including five-figure seat licenses for the right to buy tickets) to deduct up to 80 percent of the cost of their tickets as a charitable gift.

Most analysts who plodded their way through the Camp bill on Wednesday described it as a "mixed bag" for students and families and, in general, worse than that for colleges. It will be unsurprising, they said, if some of these provisions ended up in the next tax reform package that makes its way through Congress -- whenever that is.

 

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