As President Obama enters the last two years of his presidency, he has made higher education one of the key points in his policy platform. The announcement of a plan to give students two years of free tuition at community colleges has gotten a great deal of attention, even though a lot of details are still lacking. (See my analysis of the plan here.) In an unusual Saturday night release, the Obama Administration laid out some details of its tax proposals that will be further elaborated in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address.
Many of the tax provisions will either directly affect higher education, or they will impact students and their families who are currently struggling to pay for college. Here is a quick overview of the provisions:
- Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which goes to lower-income families with some wage income. This credit is fully refundable, meaning that families can benefit even if they don’t have a tax liability to offset with a credit (meaning that negative effective tax rates can result).
- Expand and streamline the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which is designed to offset high costs of child care. This could help the growing number of students who have children.
- Consolidate the tuition and fees deduction and Lifetime Learning Credit into a streamlined and expanded American Opportunity Tax Credit, and making the AOTC permanent (it is set to expire in 2017). The AOTC would be set at $2,500 per year for five years and would be indexed for inflation. The AOTC would also be expanded to cover part-time students and the refundable portion would increase from $1,000 to $1,500. Finally, Pell Grant funds received would not count toward the AOTC. The AOTC expansion would be partially covered by reducing tax incentives for 529 and Coverdell savings plans.
- Eliminate any taxes on any student loan balances forgiven after making the full 20 years of payment under income-based repayment plans. Right now, students are scheduled to be taxed on any balances—although few (if any) students have actually faced the tax burden at this point. This would partially be paid for by getting rid of the student loan interest deduction; essentially, students would lose any tax benefits for paying interest during the life of the loan, but they could benefit at the end of the payment period.
Although the exact costs of each of these proposals will not be known until the President releases his budget document later this spring, it appears that much of the revenue needed to pay for these expanded programs will come from higher taxes on higher-income individuals and large financial companies. Those tax increases are extremely unlikely to be passed by a Republican Congress, but some of the individual tax credit proposals may still be considered with funding coming from other sources.
Putting concerns about feasibility and funding aside, there are some things to like about the President’s proposals, while there are other things not to like. I’m generally not a fan of tax credits for higher education, as it is far less efficient to give students and their families money months after enrollment instead of when they actually need it the most. A great new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by George Bulman and Caroline Hoxby examined the effectiveness of federal higher education tax credits and found essentially no impacts of tax credits on enrollment or persistence rates. It would be far better to give students a smaller grant at enrollment than a larger grant later on, but that is unlikely to ever happen due to the political popularity of tax credits on both sides of the aisle.
But I do like the part of the proposal that cuts the student loan interest deduction and directs the savings toward addressing the ticking time bomb of the loan forgiveness tax. The interest deduction is complicated, making it less likely to be claimed by lower-income households. Additionally, making interest partially tax-deductible could be seen as encouraging students to borrow more, potentially putting upward pressures on tuition. That is a difficult claim to verify empirically, but it is something that is often mentioned in discussions about college prices.
Regardless of whether any of these proposals become law, it is exciting to see so much discussion of higher education finance and policy at this point. Hopefully, there will be additional proposals coming from both sides of the political aisle that will help students access and complete high-quality higher education.