As the ink dries on the $1.5 trillion tax overhaul passed last month, one consequence is becoming clear: Higher education will take a big hit.
As college financial officials analyze the final product, they expect the result to be diminished contributions, because the doubling of the standard deduction will make fewer taxpayers eligible to make tax-deductible donations. Some wealthy alumni will be discouraged from donating parts of their estate, since fewer people will need estate-tax relief after the tax bill doubles the exemption from taxes on estates. A new tax on the investment income of a few dozen top universities will leave them with less money to aid students from middle- and lower-middle-income families.
These provisions gave Republicans a way to raise a little of the money that will be lost to tax cuts for corporations and the affluent, including President Donald Trump. And they punish left-leaning institutions derided as “elite” by populist conservatives.
To be sure, there are eminently defensible provisions affecting universities. These include a tax on the five highest-paid employees making over $1 million, and an end to a taxpayer-financed rip-off available to wealthy supporters of college athletic programs. Tax writers dropped some punitive measures that were in early versions of the bill, restoring tax deductions for interest on student loans and the tax waiver on graduate school tuition.
The post-bill analysis has been sobering for college officials. Overall, the Tax Policy Center estimates that the act will reduce the overall $300 billion of charitable giving by as much as 5 percent.
The legislation doesn’t change the deductibility of charitable contributions. But doubling the standard deduction - a good move in terms of simplifying the code - will convert 30 million or more current itemizers to the standard deduction. That takes away tax incentives for charitable contributions. James Hermes, vice president of an association of community colleges, expects “a decrease in the number and amount of contributions to community colleges.”
The big concern for major schools may be doubling the exemption from estate taxes to $22 million for a couple. This tax is paid only by a small percentage of the wealthiest estates, but experts think the change will direct significant money from charitable bequests to offspring or other persons.
Officials at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire predict that the bill will reduce gifts from some of their wealthier alumni. Dartmouth also is one of the institutions that would be assessed a 1.4 percent tax on endowment income, which these schools say would take money directly from scholarship assistance for students from less affluent families. This tax affects most Ivy League schools; other private research universities like Stanford, Notre Dame and the Massachusetts and California institutes of technology; several medical schools; and leading liberal arts colleges such as Pomona, Amherst, Swarthmore and Washington & Lee.
A number of big universities also could be affected by a measure that slaps an excise tax on the five highest-paid employees of nonprofit organizations that make over $1 million a year; the amount over that threshold would face a 21 percent tax. For universities, this would disproportionately affect highly paid football and basketball coaches, who often make three or four times as much as the university president and 30 or 40 times more than the chair of the English or chemistry departments.
Also the tax bill disallows a tax scam that benefited big-time athletic programs. These require season ticket-holders to add a booster-club contribution to the price of their seats, sometimes of $10,000 or more. Starting in 2018, these payments no longer will be tax-deductible.
The hastily drafted tax bill is undoubtedly riddled with errors and oversights that university tax lawyers will be able to use to escape or minimize some of the new levies. But the impact will be significant nonetheless.
An estimated $40 billion of charitable giving goes to universities and colleges, money that is central to their functioning. The loss of any of that money will hit especially hard as many states cut government funding of public higher-educational institutions.
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.