How The House GOP Tax Plan Soaks University Cooks, Custodians And Other Low-Paid Workers

Ending a deduction that benefits university workers is even worse than people think, say two tax experts.

The tax reform plan introduced by House Republicans eliminates a number of tax deductions to pay for a series of tax cuts that mostly benefit the very wealthy.

One of the provisions it eliminates is a rule that allows graduate students to deduct from their taxes the tuition waivers they receive as a form of compensation from their universities. The proposed removal of the deduction has generated much uproar among research advocates who argue that it will discourage people from getting advanced degrees.

But ending the deduction would also hurt university employees who benefit from tuition waivers if they or their children attend the university where they work, noted a Friday blog post by Sam Brunson, a professor of tax law at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, and Michael Austin, executive vice president of academic affairs at the University of Evansville.

For well-paid university administrators or star professors, paying taxes on this benefit is likely a manageable, though significant, burden.

But for secretaries, janitors and security guards on the university’s payroll receiving free college tuition, ending the exemption would be financially onerous. That’s especially disconcerting because being able to pay for a free college education often enables the children of these working-class employees to move up the socioeconomic ladder.

“Tuition waivers can be a life-changing opportunity for some of our lowest-paid employees,” Brunson and Austin write.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) conducts his weekly news conference on Nov. 9.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) conducts his weekly news conference on Nov. 9.
Tom Williams/Getty Images

To make matters worse, Brunson and Austin write, the income tax on the tuition waiver would tax the “full sticker price of tuition” rather than the discounted rate universities provide for most students. As a result, low-earning university employees could find themselves paying taxes on income that is worth far more than the university tuition would cost in practice.

The two experts cite as an example an administrative assistant earning $30,000 a year. If she sends two children to college courtesy of the university, and the school’s “sticker-price” tuition is $35,000 a student, the government will tax her as if she earned $70,000 more than her salary ― for a total of $100,000 in taxable income.

“What this means is that fewer college employees, and fewer of their children, are going to have the opportunity to attend college because the life-changing benefit of a tuition waiver will become too expensive for them to afford,” Brunson and Austin write. “Of course, just as it does with graduate students, this limitation applies only to those without personal or family resources. Those with such resources will be fine.”

“And this is why it matters: access to higher education remains the only thing standing between the current United States and a society of hereditary privilege and permanent class divisions,” they add. “The proper term for such a society is an ‘aristocracy,’ and it is precisely what our country was founded not to be.”

University employees still have some hope: The Senate’s version of tax bill kept the deduction for tuition waivers in place. But if the Republican Congress is able to hash out a compromise between the two bills, there is no guarantee the provision will make it into the final legislation that heads to President Donald Trump’s desk.

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