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Published: Dec 15, 2017 7 min read
Collins protest
Bowdoin students, from left, Elise Lindbergh, Maya Morduch-Toubman, Isabella McCann, and Haley Maurice lead protesters in a chant in the plaza outside of of Sen. Susan Collins' office.
Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald—Getty Images

Colleges, students, and higher education groups can breath a small sigh of relief: In putting together the joint GOP tax plan, Republican House and Senate lawmakers have agreed to back off the most controversial of a set of tax proposals that would have drastically changed tuition benefits.

In total, only one big education-related change made it into the GOP tax plan, which was released late on Friday and is aimed at reconciling differences between dueling versions of the tax bill passed by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the tax bill next week.

Experts said last month that proposals in the House version of the tax bill—a package that was much harsher for higher education than its Senate counterpart—would have reduced tax incentives for higher education by nearly $65 billion over 10 years. The Senate bill, on the other hand, made relatively few changes to tuition and student loan tax benefits.

Here’s what made it into the combined bill, which President Trump is hoping to sign before the end of the year.

Graduate Student Tuition Waivers

Graduate students often get tuition discounts, known as "waivers," in return for working as teaching or research assistants. House Republicans wanted to begin taxing those discounts as income.

This provision, more than any other education proposal, brought heavy criticism, with graduate students saying their tax bills would multiply for supposed "income" they weren't even receiving. Eight students were arrested during demonstrations last week on Capitol Hill; rallies and walk-outs took place across the country; and op-ed headlines declared the change could “bankrupt graduate students.” Lawmakers were apparently paying attention; the final bill preserves the status quo.

Tax Deduction for Student Loan Interest

The bill passed in the House also drew millennials' ire by eliminating this benefit, which more than 12 million people claimed in 2015, the most recent year available, to offset the interest they’ve paid on student loans.

Under current tax law, borrowers can deduct up to $2,500 of interest paid on student loans. The maximum benefit to taxpayers is $625 a year, though most people receive much less than that. But anyone who meets the income cutoffs can claim it, regardless of whether they itemize, and borrowers were vocally against.

Senators left the deduction intact, and the final bill does as well.

Endowments at Wealthy Colleges

About that one big change: Both Senate and House versions of the tax bill called for a new tax on some private university endowments, although each had slightly different qualifications. The final version, like the Senate bill, will place a 1.4% excise tax on endowment earnings; it will affect private colleges with more than 500 students and endowments worth at least $500,000 per student. That's fewer than 30 colleges, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, about half as many as would have been affected by the House bill.

A less than 2% tax on investment income may sound small, but nearly all the affected colleges have endowments worth more than a billion dollars. (And four have funds worth more than $20 billion.) And so in years with booming markets, this tax could cost those colleges more than $1 million a year, depending on annual returns. The bill estimates it will bring in $1.8 billion in revenue over a decade.

Colleges, unsurprisingly, criticized all the proposals to tax endowments, saying the move would limit their ability to support vital financial aid, research and other campus operations. Most of the colleges on the list are among the most generous with financial aid.

529 College Savings Plans

College savings plans, named 529 plans, currently allow families to save for college in a tax-free account. As long as the money is used for approved higher education expenses, you don’t pay taxes on your earnings or withdrawals.

The new law would essentially turn 529s into K-16 savings plans, extending those tax benefits to families who want to withdraw up to $10,000 a year tax-free for elementary, high school, or home-school expenses. That expansion largely benefits wealthy families who can already afford to send children to private schools.

Credits for Tuition Payments

Lawmakers kept three different tuition credits alive. The House bill had streamlined the complicated set of tuition tax benefits by extending the American Opportunity Tax Credit for an additional year, and repealing both the Lifetime Learning Credit and another less commonly used tax credit. (The AOTC lets you get up to $2,500 back each year if you spend at least $4,000 a year on tuition and fees for a total of four years.)

The Senate bill, however, had made no changes to the current law, and the new joint bill also makes no changes.

That’s a boon for graduate students, who would have lost a credit worth up to $2,000 by repealing the Lifetime Learning Credit. It will also help students who take only a few credits at a time, since they don’t qualify for the American Opportunity Tax Credit and would have been left empty-handed in the House tax plan.

Other Education Provisions

There are other measures in the bill that could affect education in various ways.

By capping the state and local tax deduction at $10,000, the bill could hurt public colleges’ ability to raise money, said some higher education groups.

On the other hand, bonds used for campus construction will remain tax-free—a plus for colleges.

And colleges and businesses were successful in preserving tax-free employer-sponsored tuition assistance. The House bill called for eliminating the provision, which allows employees to receive up to $5,250 for tuition from their employer without it counting as taxable income.

One final, small bright spot: Student loans discharged for death or disability will no longer be taxed as income.

All of the changes would take effect at the start of 2018.