College prez asks students, faculty to defend tax breaks

The presidents of three Pennsylvania colleges recently sent a letter to Congress criticizing the Republican tax reform plans, and one even called on students and faculty to do the same.

The “tri-co” system is made up of three liberal arts colleges South of Philadelphia—Swarthmore College, Haverford College, and Bryn Mawr College. In their “letter to our elected officials in Washington,” the presidents of the three colleges argue that several provisions included in the House and Senate would “harm higher education in this country” by scaling back tax benefits.

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President Valerie Smith of Swarthmore College subsequently sent a “slightly modified version” of the letter to all students and faculty members, a copy of which was obtained by Campus Reform.

Smith began by asserting that “the recently proposed House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will directly harm higher education in this country,” claiming that it “includes a number of changes to the tax code that will significantly increase the cost both of college and of student debt.”

While she conceded that “the Senate version of the bill is not quite as onerous,” she noted that it still “imposes new excise taxes on private college and universities” before casually remarking that “it does not appear to provide the long-promised middle class tax ‘relief.’”

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I write now to urge you to familiarize yourself with this quickly unfolding legislation, which will almost certainly change again, and to ask you to consider texting, emailing, and/or calling your representatives in the House and Senate to stand with us in opposition to the bill, in whole or in part,” Smith said before delving into her specific concerns [emphasis in original].

After complaining that “lawmakers and the public should be keenly focused on lowering college cost and student debt burdens,” Smith appended a point-by-point critique of the proposals that she believes would make college “more costly and less accessible,” starting with two provisions that would curtail the tax benefits currently enjoyed by colleges and universities.

First, Smith contends that a proposal to impose a 1.4 percent tax on the investment income of the country’s largest private college endowments “will take millions of dollars away from needy students and vital college operations," as well as “directly cause job losses at many colleges and universities (thereby hurting local economies).”

The letter also objected to “the elimination of colleges’ access to tax[-]free funding (via the municipal bond market),” saying it would “hurt their ability to build and maintain educational facilities at a reasonable cost”—a condition Smith believes would be compounded by decreased charitable giving resulting from the “elimination of itemized deductions among 95% of taxpayers” and “the elimination of the estate tax.”

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Smith then addressed three elements of the legislation that she warned would “penalize students” by scaling back higher education tax credits and revoking the ability to deduct interest paid on student loans.

“The repeal of the deduction for interest on tuition loans; the repeal of the Hope Scholarships Tax Credit; and the repeal of the Lifelong Learning Credit will make it harder for Americans to afford college tuition and will significantly increase student debt,” she wrote, predicting that “the result will be less educated and less solvent citizens.”

Finally, she noted that “the House and Senate bills both propose taxing benefits that colleges and universities typically provide for their employees,” which she said would “add a burden on our employees and run counter to our deeply held belief in the value of education and wellness.”

“The proposed legislation will do lasting damage to our system of national education, hurting us at home and abroad for countless years to come,” Smith concluded. “Although this bill is framed as a way to make colleges more affordable, we believe it will have the opposite effect, as colleges may be forced to move funding allocated for scholarship and aid.”

Indeed, she even claimed that “the cumulative result of these tax changes will be losses in jobs and national economic health; educational access and quality; innovation and discovery; and American global competitiveness.”

Campus Reform reached out to President Smith via email and received an automatic “out of office” response. The alternative point of contact provided in the message did not respond to an additional inquiry in time for publication.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @mstein81