Tax Reform Bill and College

The tax bill that was finally introduced last week impacts higher education in a number of ways, most of them negative for students and families. Here is a quick summary:

Education tax credits: The bill slightly expands the American Opportunity Tax Credit but eliminates the Lifetime Learning Credit. While the AOTC is more generous than the LLC ($2,500 in tax credits for $4,000 in qualified expenses for the AOTC vs $2,000 in credits for $10,000 in qualified expenses) and is available at higher income levels, the AOTC is limited to four years (the bill adds a fifth year with a lower credit) and is only for full-time students enrolled in a degree program. By comparison, the LLC can be claimed for an unlimited number of years, whether or not the student is enrolled full-time in pursuit of a degree. Think grad school, professional development, certification courses, nontraditional students.

Student Loan Interest Deduction: The bill eliminates the student loan interest deduction. Currently, up to $2,500 in student loan interest is deductible for eligible taxpayers. More than 12 million people claimed this deduction in 2015, with the average tax savings just over $200. (The maximum annual savings is a little more than $600 based on the income cap.)

Employer Tuition Reimbursements: The bill eliminates the break for employer tuition reimbursements (currently, employers can provide up to $5,250 annually in tax-free tuition assistance). In addition, tuition reductions provided by education institutions to their employees would count as taxable income.

Coverdell ESAs: The bill eliminates the Coverdell ESA in favor of the 529. In exchange, it allows parents to use up to $10,000 annually from a 529 for K-12 education expenses. This in effect increases the benefit to parents of students in private schools, since Coverdell ESAs have an annual contribution cap of $2,000, thus limiting the funds available for K-12 expenses.

The bill’s authors claim that eliminating these tax breaks will save $47.5 billion over 10 years. (Guess who will pick up the tab for that.)

The other big factor that’s less quantifiable is the impact of eliminating the state income tax deduction on state finances: will this ultimately lead to pressure to reduce state income taxes? Education and healthcare are the largest expenditures at the state level, with 25% of state revenues going to K-12 education and another 13% to higher education, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (Medicaid and CHIP account for another 17%.) If state tax revenues decline, it is virtually impossible for education not to feel the brunt of that.

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