GOP tax plan rattles higher education

The proposal reflects a growing sense of colleges, universities as bastions of privilege.

There are signs public support for colleges is waning, especially among Republicans. A recent poll from Pew found 58 percent of Republicans view colleges negatively, while 72 percent of Democrats view them positively. | Pat Sullivan/AP

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Congressional Republicans’ plans to slap unprecedented new taxes on higher education have left college leaders shocked and scrambling — the latest salvo in what some observers say is a growing culture war on a higher education system seen as elitist and out of touch.

While most college leaders said they don’t believe they were targeted directly in tax reform legislation — and are rather collateral damage — they say the hit was startling, as higher education has long enjoyed bipartisan support. Higher education also is a powerful lobbying force on the Hill.

“I don’t think anybody expected this,” Tulane President Mike Fitts said. “I don’t think a month-and-a-half ago anybody expected this many and this level of changes in the support for higher education in the United States.”

In interviews with POLITICO, college presidents contended the tax proposals (H.R. 1 (115)) would be a devastating blow that would make college — especially graduate school — more expensive, and further out of reach of low- and middle-income families. That argument, however, may not go far, as polling shows many Americans are increasingly wary of colleges and universities, and are generally supportive of tax cuts.

“Very few Americans care” about the plight of colleges and especially about the problems of graduate students, said Jason Delisle at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Very few of them are privileged enough to get a graduate degree from an elite institution. I think they’re like, ‘Complain all you want.’ It’s just not going to resonate with Main Street America.”

Indeed, recent data shows the nation’s most elite schools have long catered mostly to the wealthy, serving relatively few low- and middle-income Americans. Dozens of colleges enroll more students from the top 1 percent of earners than the bottom 60 percent, according to data from the Equality of Opportunity Project.

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