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4 Ways the House Tax Bill Could Affect College Affordability

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Congress is working around the clock to get a new tax bill to President Trump’s desk before the year is out. In addition to a host of tax cuts, both the Senate and House GOP tax plans include several proposals that could make saving and paying for higher education more costly for families. Considering Americans hold a collective $1.36 trillion in student loan debt and 11.2 percent of that balance is either delinquent or in default that’s not-so-good news for millions of Americans.

Both plans  include proposed ideas that could impact how students and families finance higher education. The House plan, for instance, includes proposed provisions that would affect the benefits parents, students and school employees like graduate students receive, which could ultimately impact the price students pay.

In a Nov. 6 letter to the House Ways and Means Committee opposing the provisions, the American Council on Education and 50 other higher education associations states that  “the committee’s summary of the bill showed that its provisions would increase the cost to students attending college by more than $65 billion between 2018 and 2027.” They reaffirmed their opposition in a Nov. 15 letter.

The council and other higher education associations weren’t satisfied with the Senate’s version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, either. In a Nov. 14 letter, the council says it’s pleased the Senate bill retains some student benefits eliminated in the House version, but remains concerned about other positions that it says would ultimately make attaining a college education more expensive and “erode the financial stability of public and private, two-year and four-year colleges and universities.”

Where are the bills now?

Updated: U.S. senators voted 51-49, to pass a revised, 479-page version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in an early morning vote Dec. 2. The vote was almost entirely along party lines. Only one Republican senator, Bob Corker (Tenn.), voted against the tax bill, citing concerns about adding to the federal deficit. No Democrats backed the bill. Analysis of the bill as-passed is ongoing. However, the Joint Committee on Taxation posted its most-recent analysis of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to its Twitter account just after the bill’s passing Saturday.

The House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed by a 227-205 vote on Nov. 16, just before the chamber’s Thanksgiving holiday. No Democrats backed the bill. The two chambers will now need to hash out many differences between the proposed tax plans before sending legislation to the president’s desk by year’s end.

In its plan, the Senate committee says the goal of tax reform in relation to education is to simplify education tax benefits. MagnifyMoney took a look at a few of the major proposed changes to the tax code that would impact college affordability most.

Streamline tax credits

The House tax bill proposes to repeal the Hope Scholarship Credit and Lifetime Learning Credit while slightly expanding the American Opportunity Tax Credit. The new American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) would credit the first $2,000 of higher education expenses (like tuition, fees and course materials) and offer a 25 percent tax credit for the next $2,000 of higher education expenses. That’s the same as it is now, with one addition: The new AOTC also offers a maximum $500 credit for fifth-year students.

The bigger change is the elimination of the other credits. Currently, if students don’t elect the American Opportunity Tax Credit, they can instead claim the Hope Scholarship Credit for expenses up to $1,500 credit applied to tuition and fees during the first two years of education; or, they may choose the Lifetime Learning Credit that awards up to 20 percent of the first $10,000 of qualified education expenses for an unlimited number of years.

Basically, in creating the new American Opportunity Tax Credit, the House bill eliminates the tax benefit for nontraditional, part-time, or graduate students who may spend longer than five years in the pursuit of a higher-ed degree. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, consolidating the AOTC would increase tax revenue by $17.5 billion from 2018 to 2027, and increase spending by $0.2 billion over the same period.

The Senate bill does not change any of these credits.

Make tuition reductions taxable

The House bill proposes eliminating a tax exclusion for qualified tuition reductions, which allows college and university employees who receive discounted tuition to omit the reduction from their taxable income.

A repeal would generally increase the taxable income for many campus employees. Most notably, eliminating the exclusion would negatively impact graduate students students who, under the House’s proposed tax bill, would have any waived tuition added to their taxable income.

Many graduate students receive a stipend in exchange for work done for the university, like teaching courses or working on research projects. The stipend offsets student’s overall cost of attendance and may be worth tens of thousands of dollars. As part of the package, many students see all or part of their tuition waived.

Students already pay taxes on the stipend. Under the House tax plan, students would have to report the waived tuition as income, too, although they never actually see the funds. Since a year’s worth of a graduate education can cost tens of thousands of dollars, the addition could move the student up into higher tax brackets and significantly increase the amount of income tax they have to pay.

The Senate bill doesn’t alter the exclusion.

Eliminate the student loan interest deduction

Under the House tax bill, students who made payments on their federal or private student loans during the tax year would no longer be able to deduct interest they paid on the loans.

Current tax code allows those repaying student loans to deduct up to $2,500 of student loan interest paid each year. To claim the deduction, a taxpayer cannot earn more than $80,000 ($160,00 for married couples filing jointly). The deduction is reduced based on income for earners above $65,000, up to an $80,000 limit. (The phaseout is between $130,000 and $160,000 who are married and filing joint returns.)

Nearly 12 million Americans were spared paying an average $1,068 when they were credited with the deduction in 2014, according to the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute. If a student turns to student loans or other expensive borrowing options to make up for the deduction, he or she could  experience more financial strain after graduation.

The Senate tax bill retains the student loan interest deduction.

Repeal the tax exclusion for employer-provided educational assistance

Some employers provide workers educational assistance to help deflect the cost of earning a degree or completing continuing education courses at the undergraduate or graduate level. Currently, Americans receiving such assistance are able to exclude up to $5,250 of it from their taxable income.

Under the House tax plan, the education-related funds employees receive would be taxed as income, increasing the amount some would pay in taxes if they enroll in such a program.

A spokesperson for American Student Assistance says if the final tax bill includes the repeal, it may point to a bleak future for the spread of student loan repayment assistance benefits, currently offered by only 4 percent of American companies.

Take care not to confuse education assistance with another, growing employer benefit: student loan repayment assistance. The student loan repayment benefit is new and structured differently from company to company, but generally, it grants some employees money to help repay their student loans.

The Senate plan does not repeal the employer-provided educational assistance exclusion.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at brittney@magnifymoney.com

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Republican Tax Reform: Is Your 401(K) Tax Break on the Chopping Block?

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Republican lawmakers are under pressure to put out new tax reform legislation by year’s end, but to make that happen, they need ways to pay for the hefty tax cuts proposed so far.

A proposal from President Trump calls for tax cuts for taxpayers at every income level, a reduction in the corporate income tax to 20 percent from 35 percent, and the end of the estate and alternative minimum taxes, among other things.

So far, implemented as is, the plan would add $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit, according to the Tax Policy Center. The deficit is the amount by which total government spending exceeds tax revenues for the fiscal year.

Such calculations have Republicans scrambling to figure out a way to achieve tax reform without adding to the deficit.

This week, Republicans lawmakers were rumored to be considering offsetting the cost of their tax cuts by reducing the 401(k) contribution limit for workers. (Trump swiftly denounced that plan on Twitter.)

At the moment, workers under 50 are able to contribute up to $18,000 in pre-tax dollars each year to a 401(k) retirement account. The amount is tax-deductible and reduces the overall amount the worker pays in annual federal income tax. The tax-deductible contribution limits are set to rise to $18,500 and $24,500, respectively, in 2018.

The Wall Street Journal reports Republican house leaders were considering a plan that would cut annual tax-deductible contribution limits on 401(k)s and, possibly, IRAs, down to just $2,400.

Workers would need to place any amount they’d like to save above that limit in a Roth IRA, which would be a boon to the federal government. Contributions made to Roth accounts are taxed immediately, not when the benefit is drawn out as with 401(k)s, so it would be one way to drive up tax revenue in the face of tax cuts.

On Oct. 23, Trump tweeted, “There will be NO change to your 401(k).”


Started by the IRS in 1978, retirement savings plans like the 401(k) and Individual Retirement Account (IRA) have been financial staples among middle-class families. And as pension plans have been phased out over time, defined contribution plans like the 401(k) plan have taken their place as a principal retirement vehicle for those families.

The proposed limit could prove costly to many Americans, as they are likely contributing above $2,400 annually to a 401(k) retirement account. According to Fidelity Investments, the average 12-month savings rate for 401(k) accounts in 2016 reached a record high of $10,200.

The notion of cutting back the amount workers can contribute, tax-free, to retirement accounts is understandably unsettling to many workers and members of the asset management community. That’s in part because, as Trump has noted on Twitter, 401(k) contributions allow many middle-class Americans a tax break.

Here’s how it works. For this example, we based our estimates on 2016 income tax brackets.

Let’s say Robin is  head of her household and drew a base salary of about $55,000 in 2016, placing her in the 25% tax bracket. She deferred 15% of her pre-tax income, or $8,250, to her 401(k) retirement account. Her $8,250 contribution reduces her annual taxable income to $46,750.

That newly calculated income not only dropped Robin to the 15% tax bracket, but she also saved nearly $1,700 in federal income taxes.

The administration’s tax plan reduces the seven existing tax brackets to just three — 12,  25 and 35 percent (with a possible fourth tax bracket for the highest-earning individuals). But the plan did not specify income ranges. As of this writing, it is unclear which incomes would fall into which bracket.

For the purposes of this example, let’s assume that Robin’s income would still land her in the 25 percent income tax bracket.

With a  401(k) contribution limit reduced to $2,400, she would have been taxed on $52,600 at a 25 percent tax rate. That would have increased the amount she paid in federal income tax to $7,297.50 from $6,350 in 2016.

Moving forward

It’s unclear if the new tax bill will actually include a reduction in 401(k) contribution limits. But one thing that is clear is this: If the tax-reform measures are to pass, funding for more than $1.5 trillion in lost revenue to tax cuts over the next decade has to come from somewhere.

The plan proposes to reduce the tax burden on middle-class Americans by doubling the standard deduction Americans can make when filing their federal income taxes to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly. However, it would eliminate the option to itemize deductions instead of using the standard deduction. The proposed plan would also increase the child tax credit — currently $1,000 — by an unspecified amount and create a $500 tax credit for nonchild dependents, like elderly family members. These and other tax cuts may translate to big losses in federal tax revenue.

An independent analysis by the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank, claims the new tax plan would reduce federal revenues by $6.2 trillion over the first decade, while federal debt could rise by at least $7 trillion in the same period.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at brittney@magnifymoney.com

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