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U.S. Senate bill would preserve tax-free tuition waivers for graduate students

But universities oppose endowment tax and other provisions in reform plan

by Glenn Hess, special to C&EN
November 14, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 46

The U.S. tax reform package proposed by Senate Republicans would retain many of the tax benefits for undergraduate and graduate students that the GOP-led House of Representatives put on the chopping block.

But the Senate measure also includes several key provisions strongly opposed by higher education groups, such as an excise tax on some private colleges with large endowments and the elimination of certain state and local tax deductions.

The Senate bill “still places too much of the burden of fixing our outdated tax system on America’s nonprofit universities,” says Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 institutions.

Universities are disappointed that both versions of tax reform legislation would impose a 1.4% tax on investment income at private schools with endowments worth at least $250,000 per full-time student. The tax would affect up to 70 schools and raise an estimated $2.5 billion over a decade.

“Congress seems eager to redirect these funds to the federal government’s coffers, with no clear benefit to America’s hardworking students and their families,” Coleman says.

The Senate’s plan would also eliminate the deduction for state and local taxes, which universities argue would put pressure on high-tax states to cut taxes and ultimately discourage state investment in public colleges and universities.

However, the Senate would retain several tax breaks for students that the House plans to abolish, such as an exemption that allows graduate students to avoid paying taxes on the tuition waivers they receive when they work as research or teaching assistants.

The House’s proposal to eliminate the tuition exemption “would potentially double or triple the taxable income of graduate students, making graduate education unaffordable,” says the American Chemical Society. “If the proposed repeals are enacted, it is anticipated that a significant number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics students will forego their graduate education, thereby undermining the U.S. innovation pipeline that is so critical to job creation and economic growth.” ACS publishes C&EN.

In another departure from the House’s legislation, the Senate would keep the tax credit for payment of student-loan interest.

On the business side, both plans would slash the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%. But the Senate bill would delay the rate cut to 2019, while the House would make it effective in 2018.

The one-year delay would lower the cost of the bill by more than $100 billion. Senate Republicans are trying to limit the revenue impact to comply with procedural rules that would allow the bill to pass on a party-line vote.

Republicans aim to overhaul the U.S. code by the end of the year. If the House and Senate pass separate bills, lawmakers will have to reconcile the differences.



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