(USA TODAY) -- From student loans and post-graduate tuition to the bonds used to build dormitories, the tax bill Republicans in Congress are trying to pass before Christmas could have a significant impact on the finances of colleges, universities and the people who attend them.
The bill is not yet final. The House and Senate passed competing bills; Republicans are now trying to hash out a compromise. Both chambers have to vote to approve the final product before President Trump can sign it into law. They hope the tax changes would, with some exceptions, take effect on Jan. 1.
Depending on which ideas make the final cut, a college education or advanced degree could become more expensive or unavailable, and students could see cutbacks to services or research, said Liz Clark with the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
The House, which passed its bill on Nov. 16, was most aggressive toward college-related programs, said Steven Bloom of the American Council on Education.
"It's a little over $71 billion in cuts and changes that are going to undermine access to higher education for traditional-age undergraduates, nontraditional older students, folks who need to go back for retraining, and graduate students," Bloom said.
Supporters of the legislation said they were seeking lower rates to benefit the most taxpayers, rather than a web of narrow provisions and benefits for specific populations.
Here's a look at some of what's under consideration that could affect higher education:
Currently student loan interest is deductible regardless of whether a taxpayer itemizes if income is under a certain level. The House bill eliminated this deduction, a tax increase of $21 billion over the coming decade, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. The Senate left the deduction unchanged. Both houses also passed provisions to allow tax-free loan forgiveness when a student dies or is totally disabled.
Reduced or free tuition
Graduate students who teach or work as researchers are offered free or reduced tuition as well as stipends at many universities. Under current law, only the stipends are taxable as income. The House bill would make the tuition break taxable too, as well as free tuition offered to spouses or children of university employees. This would raise $5.4 billion over the coming decade. The Senate bill did not include this change.
The biggest private university endowments, those pots of donated money that are invested to provide steady income for scholarships and operations, would be hit with a new tax of 1.4% on investment income. The House bill would apply the tax to schools that have at least 500 students and assets of $250,000 per full-time student. The Senate narrowed that to $500,000 per full-time student, and included an exception for schools whose students don't get federal loans, a provision that Democrats said was aimed at one school in Michigan tied to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The endowment tax would only hit about 100 of the wealthiest private universities, but the effect on students could be that money for financial aid or research would instead be paid in taxes to Washington.
The House bill would eliminate the ability of nonprofits such as universities (as well as hospitals and housing agencies) to issue bonds that pay interest that is exempt from federal tax. Offering tax-exempt bonds allows institutions and agencies to borrow money for buildings or other capital costs and pay lower interest than bonds that are not tax-exempt, since the bond buyer is getting compensation in the form of a tax break. The Senate kept these private activity bonds unchanged.
Two changes, one applied nationally and the other only at universities, could affect how much people donate. Both the House and Senate bills would repeal the current law that provides an 80% deduction for donations to universities given specifically to get benefits at sporting events such as seats in a preferred section of the stadium or arena. Both bills also nearly double the standard deduction for individuals and married couples, and that could reduce the incentive for taxpayers to make charitable contributions because they would no longer be seeking itemized deductions. The JCT estimates that if the bills are enacted, 95% of people would use the standard deduction.
Lifetime learning credit
The House proposed combining several tuition tax credit programs. The bill would a expand a larger, short-term benefit — the American Opportunity Tax Credit — from four years to five years, but eliminate the Lifetime Learning Credit, which provides smaller payouts with no time limit for people who are not pursuing a degree. One effect of the change would be part-time students would no longer get a tax credit to offset tuition, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. The Senate did not change the programs. Eliminating the lifetime credit raises $24 billion over the coming decade, while expanding the AOTC would cost an extra $6.8 billion.
Employer education benefits
Employers currently can provide education assistance of up to $5,250 per year to employees for both graduate and undergraduate courses. The House bill would make this a taxable benefit, a change that would raise $20.6 billion over the coming decade. The Senate left current law unchanged.
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