The Washington Post a few days ago published a story by Nick Anderson detailing how the proposed House tax bill reduces or eliminates several tax breaks long popular with the higher education community.
The proposal would mean ending the interest deduction on college loans, counting tuition benefits for graduate students as taxable income and levying a tax on certain institutions’ endowments. The higher education community is not happy.
I spent 35 years in a professional career in advertising and public relations, but since 1988, I’ve also been part of the higher education community. I served as an adjunct lecturer for most of that period; the last five years I’ve had an expanded role as a program director and collegiate media co-adviser.
As I wrote in an earlier post, the fate of the individual components of the tax bill would most likely be determined by the strength of the lobbying presence of the people and organizations negatively affected. While I still feel that’s largely the case, some elements of this bill seem to betray a disturbing change of attitude by lawmakers toward certain institutions.
As Mr. Anderson wrote in his story, the tax writers’ strategy points to “evidence of a growing disconnect between large segments of the GOP and colleges…”
That perception of a growing disdain on the part of voters outside the Beltway regarding colleges has risen dramatically in the last two years, according to a survey this past June by the Pew Research Center, also cited by Mr. Anderson. Almost 60 percent of “Republicans and Republican-leaning independents” now think colleges have a negative effect on the country; that figure was just 37 percent in 2015. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 72 percent now think colleges have a positive effect. Those trends among voters get mirrored by members of Congress — if they want to get re-elected.
So why the dramatic rise in negative attitude in just two years — and the worry that the sharp uptick will continue?
Is it increasingly critical analyses of GOP policies authored by college faculty? The 2016 Presidential election? Free speech issues on campus? Rising tuition costs? The growing incivility of political discourse? All of the above?
Anderson’s piece notes a strong segment of the Trump support base — which all GOP officeholders feel they must cater to — are white individuals without a college degree. Exit polls show those voters gave the President with a 2-1 victory margin.
Higher education, which traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, has become the latest casualty of the culture wars. But before the GOP locks these tax changes into place, they might recall that many of their constituents may be taking advantage of the current higher ed breaks — particularly the deductibility of interest on student loans. Those people will be losers and they just might be looking for someone to blame come the 2018 mid-term elections.
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I have to wonder what effect, if any, the opinions of the recently- graduated (or even recently-admitted) may play into this trend? Since my own graduation in 2008, I’ve seen an increase in what I’ll call “anti-college” attitudes among this group, which seems to be largely driven by young people who graduate with incredible amounts of debt into a weak job market, where having a BA/BS is often seen as the new high school diploma, and therefore lacks any real prestige or bargaining power. There seems to be more disillusionment, where young people are more likely to say that “maybe college isn’t for me,” or “isn’t worth it”, as opposed to when I was a student and the prevailing view was that “everyone should go to college.” There is also a certain amount of anger among those who do graduate, only to find out that the jobs they were “promised” when enrolling in college are not forthcoming (or at least are not easy to come by). It’s not entirely clear who was surveyed in the poll you discuss, but anymore I wonder if this sort of trend isn’t influenced by college-aged folks as much as their elders.