It feels like tax reform has changed practically everything. In its wake, we've seen residents in high property tax states rushing to pre-pay their 2018 bills, small businesses re-evaluating their organizational structures, and corporations positioning themselves for potentially massive repatriations as well as a future earnings windfall.

But one of the more profound changes in the tax code is how we treat the nation's colleges, and it could have a major effect on their financial standing.

There are a number of ways universities could take a hit. First, alumni may not be quite so giving. As I explained in an earlier column, the doubling of the standard deduction means that Americans will largely move away from itemizing their deductions, and as a result, charities fear that taxpayers will also lose their incentive to give. Without the tax benefit, many charities view the drop off as inevitable.

That's concerning to both public and private colleges. Una Osili, professor of economics and associate dean for research and international programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, predicted at least a $13 billion drop in charitable giving, and with colleges' non-profit status, that total includes universities across the nation.

But that's not the only way schools might suffer, and one setback may impact a very specific subset of schools: private institutions with large endowments.

For some of the wealthiest higher education institutions - those with more than 500 students and an endowment worth over $500,000 per full-time student - the new law imposes a 1.4 percent tax on their endowment income.

This affects roughly 30 private colleges with extremely large endowments, 22 of which are located in states that traditionally tend to go blue in Presidential elections, such as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California. And some think that's not a coincidence.

Some of these claims come from those on the left of the issue, such as John K. Wilson, who believes House Republicans are targeting liberal universities.

"It's clear that the point of the endowment tax is not to tax wealthy universities. It's to send a warning shot at all colleges and universities to restrain academic freedom or risk further economic assaults on higher education," Wilson wrote for Inside Higher Ed.

Wilson, who has been an outspoken critic of the Trump administration, goes right for the incendiary conspiracy theory with that claim, but it's an idea that's been echoed by more moderate commentators as well. The Wall Street Journal reports that pegging the tax to college enrollment will cause small liberal arts colleges to be hit disproportionately because many have sizable endowments but limited enrollment. Among those schools bracing for the biggest impact are places like Amherst, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Julliard, and others, located - notably - in blue states.

For their part, Congressional Republicans insist that the tax was designed, not to punish a particular subset of colleges, but to encourage them to use their endowments to lower the cost of education. Rep. Tom Reed (R. N.Y.) explained that he expected Congress to use the new endowment tax as a negotiation tool in the future as a way to spur schools to reduce tuition in exchange for a suspension of the tax."

Whether the college endowment tax was politically targeted or part of a larger plan to push schools to lower the barrier to entry, it doesn't change the reality that many liberal arts colleges stand to lose significant endowment income. And that makes a lot of colleges uneasy, even public schools who aren't subject to this tax.

"Even though public universities are not affected by the endowment tax, they are very much opposed to it, for fear it would set a precedent that would be applied to them in the future," Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education told NPR in December.

Will this all have an impact on enrollment, financial aid, or even the future viability of these colleges? That's hard to say right now, but we do know that this is a drastic change, one that schools are going to have to account for before the law takes hold in 2019. 

Published on: Jan 22, 2018
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