Tax reform threatens college affordability

Isiaah Crawford is the president of University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.
Isiaah Crawford is the president of University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. Courtesy photo

Our nation’s founders were idealistic and imperfect, and they disagreed about many aspects of the new country they were forming. But on the subject of education, they and the succession of leaders who followed have been very clear: an educated citizenry is essential for a democratic society to sustain itself.

Perhaps Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it best: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

As Congress wrestles with the issue of tax reform, it is our duty as Americans to help them choose wisely.

As a college president in Tacoma, my life and work are grounded in the belief that education is not just the best preparation for a life of service and leadership, but a fundamental human right that should be accessible to all.

One of our country’s greatest strengths is our diversity of educational institutions serving people of all abilities, ages, ambitions, backgrounds, interests and talents.

Yet, the current tax reform legislation under consideration by Congress would undermine that strength by making a college education significantly less accessible and much more expensive.

American higher education is already too expensive. Seven out of 10 college students graduating from a four-year college had debt in 2015, and that burden averaged $30,100, according to a recent report by The Institute for College Access and Success.

Yet Congress is considering eliminating the student loan interest tax deduction and repealing the Lifetime Learning Credit.

This would put a bigger strain on students struggling to pay off loans that have enabled them to pursue meaningful and useful careers, ranging from public service to healthcare to teaching in our nation’s schools.

The proposed excise tax on private college endowment investment income will be directly felt by students as well. This income is an essential tool in defraying, through the provision of financial aid and scholarships, the costs of higher education at nonprofit independent colleges.

Our institutions rely on investment income as a non-tuition-based source of revenue that helps cover operating expenses. It also funds financial aid programs that allow students to enroll, persist successfully to graduation and reduce their debt burden.

Our students also benefit from the generosity of donors who provide scholarships and make other charitable contributions that support research, academic programs, faculty and educational facilities.

As currently written, the tax bill would lead to a decline in charitable giving — once again putting an additional burden on students and their families, and limiting higher education access to those who can afford to pay.

Let’s choose wisely. Tax reform is a pressing need, but it shouldn’t be achieved by penalizing those who seek to make a better life for themselves, and the communities that they serve in turn. It is possible to offer tax relief in a way that does not increase college costs.

Our nation’s higher education institutions are ready to work with Congress to enact legislation that better meets the needs of our students and their families, faculty and staff members, alumni and those who support and benefit from higher education.

In our current political environment, we Americans don’t seem to agree on much. But I think we can agree to honor the intentions of our founders that education is required to meet the highest tests of democratic citizenship.

Any action that reduces access to education and penalizes families who choose to invest in education is neither a good choice nor a wise one.

Isiaah Crawford is the president of University of Puget Sound in central Tacoma.