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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

A New War on Higher Education?

November 24, 2017

Higher education has long been a gateway to enter or stay in America’s middle class and beyond.  It’s well-known that government financial aid has long been a major factor in helping lower-income and middle-income students afford the rising costs of tuition, fees, textbooks and housing. 

Less recognized but also critical have been tax breaks.  However, the proposed overhaul of the tax code making its way through Congress could cripple those tax breaks.  And that would hurt the lower- and middle-income families whom the GOP leadership and President Donald Trump claim will benefit most from rewiring our tax laws.  Before the details, let’s look at a political context that the media has largely overlooked:

Earlier this year, the nonpartisan, non-advocacy Pew Research Center released the troubling results of a new survey that found a growing proportion of Republicans who contend that colleges and universities are harmful to the United States.  (The same study found a huge percentage—85 percent—of Republicans feel that way about the press—but that’s no surprise, and it’s a separate story.)  “A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58 percent) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45 percent last year,” the study said.  Only 36 percent say the effect has been positive. 

Pew has been asking that question since 2010, and this is the first time that most Republicans look unfavorably at institutions of higher education.  “By contrast most Democrats and Democratic-leaners (72 percent) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years,” the study said.

The new findings reflect a dramatic turnaround in Republicans’ attitude in just a few years.  Several interesting aspects of the GOP views emerge when parsing the numbers from Pew’s national survey of 2,504 adults conducted in June.

One is an “ideological gap in views”: 65 percent of conservative Republicans but only 43 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans say colleges are bad for America. (And yes, some respondents identified themselves as liberal Republicans.) 

The second is age-related: “Younger Republicans continue to express more positive views of colleges than do older Republicans.”  Overall, 52 percent of younger Republicans and Republican-leaners say higher education institutions have a positive impact, contrasted with 27 percent of those above 65. 

Next comes educational level: One-third (33 percent) of those with at least a college degree hold a positive opinion about higher education.  It’s slightly higher—37 percent—among those without a college degree. 

The fourth is economic: Higher-income Republicans are less supportive of colleges and universities than their less-prosperous counterparts.  In households earning less than $30,000 annually, 46 percent see colleges as good for America.  That number is only 31 percent for members of households earning at least $75,000 a year.

This attitude-scape provides a political backdrop for what’s happened on Capitol Hill.  If the core constituencies of congressional Republicans don’t value higher education, it’s easier for the leadership to gut the tax benefits that help make higher education affordable—all in the name of tax “reform” and closing loopholes.  The current tax code, according to the American Council on Education (ACE), “contains a number of provisions, enacted independently over time, that together create a framework that functions as a kind of ‘three-legged stool’ intended to advance three important goals: 1) encourage saving for higher education; 2) help students and families pay for college; and 3) assist with the repayment of student loans. This framework serves the needs of low- and middle-income students and families as they invest in themselves and in higher education.”

In a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California), ACE president Ted Mitchell said provisions in the House-passed legislation are “not in America’s national interest.”  Mitchell said the changes would, “discourage participation in postsecondary education, make college more expensive for those who do enroll, and undermine the financial stability of public and private, two-year and four-year colleges and universities.  Its provisions would increase the cost to students attending college by more than $65 billion between 2018 and 2027.”

Now in peril: The current tax exemption would end for tuition waivers for an estimated 145,000 graduate students who work as teaching and research assistant, primarily in science, technology, engineering and math. (They do pay taxes on their stipends.)

Now in peril: The deduction for interest paid on student loans would disappear. The New York Times reports that 12 million taxpayers used that deduction in 2015.

Now in peril: The exemption for the value of free and reduced tuition for children of college employees would disappear.  Institutions have long offered that fringe benefit as an alternative to higher pay.  Another provision under fire from higher education advocacy groups would impose a 1.4 percent excise tax on large endowments at almost 100 private colleges.

So if higher education loses some of its power as a gateway to enter or stay in America’s middle class and beyond, what will the future gateway be?

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

November 22, 2017 · Filed under Freedman



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