It’s hard to imagine how deeply the policies of the Trump Administration will affect America’s colleges and universities. As a group, these institutions are already undergoing substantial disruption. The old financial models under which most of higher education operate no longer work. The current path for many of them is not sustainable. Many institutions face rising costs, deeper financial aid discounts, and dismal demographics.
From Taxes to Immigration, Federal Policies are Hammering Higher Ed
This is a time when enlightened state and federal policy could make an important difference, resetting the balance that would offer breathing space for colleges trying to handle disruption. Policies could even provide new opportunities for the most innovative institutions, those who are using disruption to become more sustainable over the long term.
Drawn from different arenas, four policy directions illustrate how the wrong federal initiatives can wreak havoc on the American educational community.
Federal immigration policy: Immigration changes, proposed or underway, have two important and debilitating effects on American higher education. First, the drop in foreign student applications cuts off a supply of the “best and brightest” global students into American universities. On a graduate and professional level, such policies diminish the pool of qualified professionals who add diversity and depth to the applicant base and form a pool of potential subsequent hires. Fewer international students decreases the revenue available to colleges and universities whose financial models depend on full-pay students to offset the deep financial aid discounting now heavily practiced on most campuses.
Tax on endowments: On its surface, the proposed tax on endowments may seem noble. Federal officials want to make the money more available to offset high tuition sticker prices by forcing the wealthiest colleges and universities to increase scholarships to students. The problem is, of course, that many of these institutions already have the most enlightened and generous financial aid policies. An endowment tax would penalize these schools for being successful at using fundraising and endowment investments to support their existing scholarship aid and funding the resources and offerings that make them such attractive institutions.
The argument makes no sense. Generally, an endowment must make some amount above its annual spend down and the rate of inflation in order to grow at a reasonable speed — perhaps somewhere around seven percent today.
What happens in the years when the endowment returns falls below the break-even rate as it has most years recently (and sometimes quite dramatically)? Further, what is the incentive for colleges and universities to build their endowments with private support to a point where they subject their efforts to additional federal taxes?
Finally, how much would the proposed endowment tax actually contribute back to the U.S. Treasury? Is it deficit reduction or politics at play? It’s not so much that 50-100 colleges are affected — out of about 4,700 schools nationwide — it’s more a question of why? Is the endowment tax an example of government policy determined by anecdote and polling?
Tax on graduate tuition waivers: Does it make any sense to tax scholarship money? If not, then why does the Republicans’ proposed tax bill include a tax on graduate tuition waivers? Much of the existing student debt about which politicians complain is acquired when students earn graduate and professional degrees. Why increase their debt burdens?
Elimination of tax deduction for interest on student loans: Under the current tax code, students save as much as $2,500 annually via the deduction on student loan interest. While only the House tax proposal contained this provision, there is always a danger that mischief can occur in conference deliberations. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have identified student debt burdens as an area of significant and growing economic concern. Why pass legislation that will make the situation worse?
In previous years’ tax and higher education funding bills, colleges and universities worried about the level of funding for student grants and loans like the Pell Grant and the Perkins Loan Program. They diligently watched any effort to impinge on their tax-exempt status. And they took active positions on issues of daily concerns, like the burden of state and federal regulations.
But this year’s legislative proposals are substantively different. Federal policies are beginning to intrude into who and how we educate our students, where we draw our students from, and how colleges can continue to make themselves affordable.
It has long been assumed that given declining discretionary ability, the federal government would increasingly turn to regulation to enforce its policies. But now, the efforts seem more directed at reshaping our cultural environment through policies that cut across race, nationality, and wealth.
College and university leaders need to watch the tax bill’s conference deliberations closely. It’s a confusing and troubling time as we watch politics, money, and cultural preferences collide in the name of tax reform.