December 5, 2017 | Academic Affairs

By Emily Tai

There are a number of reasons to be apprehensive about H.R. I: The Tax Cuts and Job Act, the federal tax bill currently being negotiated between the House and Senate—but educators at America’s colleges and universities should be particularly concerned.  The House version, critics say, would be especially devastating to graduate education, as it would tax graduate tuition benefits as income—essentially rendering graduate education unaffordable for all but the wealthiest students.  The House plan would also eliminate tax credits for part-time college students; education loan repayment; and include tuition benefits assigned by employers in taxable income.

Universities under Fire: Public and Private
Both plans have been opposed by private college lobbies for provisions that make private college endowments taxable, although the Senate version would do so at a higher rate, safeguarding the assets of smaller private colleges that might suffer substantial losses under the House version.  Public colleges and universities may also see a decline in state and local support, due to provisions that limit or eliminate deductions for the payment of state and local property taxes.  Critics fear that these provisions may encourage taxpayers to pressure state and local legislators to further reduce tax collections that have already diminished—shrinking support for public higher education to new, all-time lows.

An Educated Minority
Disciplinary organizations such as the American Chemical Society, the American Historical Society, the Modern Language Association, and the National Humanities Alliance are asking members to call their congressional representatives, and urge legislators to lean toward the Senate version of the tax bill, which would safeguard graduate student stipends.  Some  commentators have nevertheless argued that the new tax bill is a wake-up call for faculty and administrators at America’s colleges and universities, who need to do a better job of illustrating the value of research and education to the general public.  But this may be a tall order. Although the most recent census found that more Americans have earned a college degree (see, “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015”) than ever before, only a third of Americans hold an associates or a baccalaureate degree— while just 2% of Americans hold a doctorate, which may be the reason why the plight of graduate students, under the new tax provisions, stirs so little sympathy.  Tax cuts that disproportionately single out graduate students may well reflect the frustration of Americans who don’t necessarily experience higher education as an engine of social mobility, given the rising costs of college that can often render it unaffordable for moderate- and low-income Americans.

Mobilizing Damage Control
Such criticisms should not apply to CUNY, however, which has earned praise for the huge benefits our system offers to the economically disadvantaged in fostering “intergenerational mobility.”  Many of CUNY’s faculty—including this author–can moreover remember the critical role that graduate scholarship funding played in shaping their own academic and professional success.   Our own experience should invite us all to safeguard these opportunities for future generations of American scholars—and the access to higher education that the City University of New York has historically offered to all New Yorkers.

Emily Tai is an associate professor of History at Queensborough Community College and edits the UFS Blog.

The UFS Blog is a forum for CUNY Faculty, and welcomes the expression of all points of view. Posts may be sent to the editor, Emily S. Tai at etai@qcc.cuny.edu.

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Photo: Public Domain