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GOP tax plan seeks to shake up higher education tax credits, deductions and benefits

Tucked away in the much anticipated Republican tax bill are a few provisions that are sure to rattle universities, student loan borrowers and anyone paying for college.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R., Texas), joined by House Speaker  Paul Ryan (right), holds a proposed “postcard tax filing form” as they unveil the GOP’s far-reaching tax overhaul Thursday.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R., Texas), joined by House Speaker Paul Ryan (right), holds a proposed “postcard tax filing form” as they unveil the GOP’s far-reaching tax overhaul Thursday.Read moreJ. Scott Applewhite / AP

Tucked away in the much anticipated Republican tax bill are a few provisions that are sure to rattle universities, student loan borrowers and anyone paying for college.

The legislation unveiled Thursday by House Republican leaders taps into some existing proposals that have created division within the higher education sector, including whether well-heeled schools are paying their fair share. It also delivers on some long-standing promises to simplify and streamline the credits and deductions provided to families and students, but in ways that may leave some Americans frustrated.

Excise tax on endowments: Republicans want to impose a 1.4 percent excise tax on the net investment income of private colleges and universities whose endowments equal at least $100,000 per full-time student. Because the provision is directed at schools with 500 students or more, the tax could target private schools with at least $50 million in endowment assets. Though the criteria tracks with a 2014 plan introduced by former Rep. Dave Camp (R., Mich.), the threshold is much lower than congressional Republicans had discussed more recently and could hurt small private college that are already struggling to stay afloat.

There are at least 447 private colleges and universities that would meet the criteria for taxation, according to an analysis by Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research. If a private university with a $50 million endowment made an annual return of 5 percent, that school could face a $35,000 tax bill under the proposal.

In the summer of 2016, congressional Republicans asked 56 private universities, each with endowments exceeding $1 billion, for information about the use of that money. New York Republican Rep. Tom Reed had introduced a bill requiring colleges with endowments above $1 billion to set aside up to 25 percent of their investment earnings toward financial aid, or risk losing tax-exempt status.

Wealthy universities have drawn criticism from lawmakers for raising tuition far in excess of inflation while sitting on hefty endowments. Schools have derided the attention on their endowments as misguided and argued that they are not savings accounts that can easily be drawn down.

Colleges maintain endowments, a collection of tax-exempt donations and investments, to pay for salaries, research, financial aid and other expenses. Donors often place conditions on their money, directing the funds to only be used for athletics or to support specific kinds of research, for instance. As a result, schools often say their hands are tied, but many higher education experts argue that universities could restructure their policies. Liz Clark, director of federal affairs at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, argues that the provision is not a perfect way of looking at a private university's finances because many schools use their funds for research endeavors.

Republicans say imposing the excise tax could yield $3 billion over the next 10 years.

Student loan interest, tuition reductions and education assistance: The GOP plan would no longer allow people repaying their student loans to reduce their tax burden by up to $2,500. People whose employer covers a portion of their college costs would also see the money become taxable income.

The plan would also do away with a tuition tax break for university employees and their families. As it stands, tuition discounts provided to that group are excluded from income, under what's known as qualified tuition reductions. Republicans estimate that by doing away with all of those deductions and tax breaks will increase government revenue by $47.5 billion over the next decade.

College tax credit consolidation: The three existing higher education tax credits – the American Opportunity Tax Credit, Lifetime Learning Credit and Hope Scholarship Credit – would be folded into one credit. That new benefit would credit families for the first $2,000 spent on tuition, books and supplies, and provide an additional 25 percent tax credit for the next $2,000 spent. Republicans are also proposing to make the credit available for a fifth year of college at half the rate as the first four years, with up to $500 of the credit being refundable.

Streamlining the jumble of tax credits could increase revenue for the government by $17.3 billion over 10 years, according to the plan. That's likely because the new credit would squeeze graduate students, especially PhD candidates who spent far longer than five years in college.

Tax credits are a controversial way to help families afford college. The federal government has spent more than $23 billion a year on the three existing education tax credits, but a lot of that money goes to families making at least $100,000, according to the Tax Policy Center.

In 2015, President Barack Obama proposed consolidating all of the credits into one program to the benefit of people attending college less than half the time, as a way of ensuring more low-income students would receive help. But his plan failed to gain much support, especially after the president included a proposal to end a major tax benefit of a popular college savings account, known as 529 plans to help pay for the expansion.

Coverdell Education Savings Accounts: Republicans would like to phase out Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, which allow families to invest without the earnings being taxed as long as the funds are used to pay for college or private school. The account is akin to the more popular 529 plans for college, but has a much lower contribution limit of $2,000. By comparison, families can pour up to $14,000 a year into a 529 plan.

The House tax plan would phase out Coverdells by prohibiting new contributions and expanding 529 plans to cover up to $10,000 a year in elementary and high school expenses. It would also include expenses associated with apprenticeship programs. Both additions are a clear nod to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's push to shift more federal dollars to private schools and focus greater attention on vocational training. Republicans estimate that phasing out Coverdells will yield about $600 million over the next decade.

Tax bills for death and disability discharges: The House plan would put an end to the government counting student debt that is forgiven due to death or disability as taxable income, a move that could cost $100 million over 10 years.

The tax burden gained attention in 2016 after Obama announced plans to forgive $7.7 billion in federal student loans held by nearly 400,000 permanently disabled people through a matching system. The Social Security Administration and Department of Education teamed to pinpoint borrowers receiving disability payments, under the specific designation of "Medical Improvement Not Expected," which indicates they are eligible for the discharge.

Anyone with a severe disability is eligible to have the government discharge their federal student loans. Every dollar forgiven by the government, however, is considered taxable income. Congressional lawmakers have in the past urged the Treasury Department to use its administrative authority to do away with the tax burden, but Treasury said it was up to Congress to take action.