As I write this piece, deliberations are taking place on Capitol Hill that have a reasonable likelihood of resulting in the passage of a “tax reform” bill that will have devastating consequences for higher education in this country.
Although the media have provided coverage of this issue, they are understandably more focused on those aspects of the bill that will exacerbate the existing disparity between the wealthiest 1-2 percent of the population and rest of the country, a policy apparently based on “trickle down” economic theory that many of us assumed was completely discredited. For those wishing to follow the latest developments, one good source is the website for the American Council on Education.
But it’s also important to note that the Republican Party is rushing forward at a breakneck speed in a deliberate effort to, in the words of one U.S. News and World Report writer, “gut decades of work to make college more affordable.” The House passed its version of the tax bill on November 16, and it seems likely that the Senate will pass its own version by the end of this week. If this takes place, then the House and the Senate will have until the end of the year to reconcile differences between the two bills. Should the final legislation pass in 2017, it will go into effect on January 1, 2018.
Higher education thus faces a clear and present danger.
Both the House and the Senate bills propose changes that will have massively destructive consequences on higher education, even though there are some important differences. For example, the House bill would repeal Sec. 117(d)(5), which provides for the tax exemption of tuition waivers for graduate students serving as teaching and research assistants. Although this proposal is not part of the existing Senate bill, if it is incorporated into a final bill, graduate students would take a massive economic hit, effective January 1, 2018. This would have huge impact on graduate students across the country. It will be particularly devastating for our graduate students here at The New School, who are relatively poorly funded relative to students in many other universities.
Our university, along with other universities around the country, already face serious problems. The future of the universities as we have known them and as they promise to be centers of learning, teaching and exploration now must be defended. But beyond these larger issues, as faculty members, my colleagues and I at Public Seminar wish to express our genuine sense of concern for and solidarity with our students.
Jeremy Safran is Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research.