LEWISTON — Bates College President Clayton Spencer blasted a controversial tax measure Tuesday that Congress appears poised to pass this month as “an assault on educational opportunity.”
Spencer said the $71 billion the bill would take from higher education would hurt students, families and America’s colleges and universities.
It would also undermine “the engine of innovation” that has driven the national economy since the end of World War II, she said.
Spencer said that in the wake of the world war, leaders in Washington adopted a forward-looking approach with the GI Bill that made it possible for ordinary Americans to secure educations they could never have imagined without the federal government’s aid.
Supplemented over the years by other initiatives, from subsidized student loans to tax credits, the government’s policy has long been to encourage people to seek college degrees.
“Education was regarded as an investment of national importance,” Spencer said.
Now, though, Congress appears to be placing a higher priority on cutting corporate taxes and lowering the tax burden on the country’s wealthiest individuals, she said.
Spencer has been working with colleagues at Bowdoin, Colby and other colleges to try to convince lawmakers to reject efforts to slice higher education, especially some of the more onerous provisions of the bill approved by the U.S. House.
The House and Senate each adopted a different version of the $1.5 trillion tax cut plan. A joint committee is working to mesh the two bills into one that can win the support of a majority in both houses. Legislative leaders have said they hope to have one adopted in time for President Donald Trump to sign it into law this month.
Perhaps the most controversial proposal in either bill was a call by the House to start counting tuition assistance for graduate students as taxable income, which would bring in more than $5 billion in additional revenue during the next decade.
The problem with it, however, is that many graduate students don’t actually have any money to pay a tax on the tuition. They generally earn just enough to scrape by while they’re in graduate school.
Spencer said that American universities have had great success in recruiting the most talented students in the world for their graduate programs, including many Americans whose families don’t have much money.
Those students are the workhorses of the vast research programs that have led to thousands of innovations over the decades in all sort of fields that have grown into industries. Spencer said it doesn’t make any sense to undermine such a successful system.
Also on the chopping block is the deductibility of student loan interest and repeal of the Lifetime Learning Credit that helps adults get new skills so they can stay fresh in a fast-changing economy.
Spencer said that instead of looking ahead and focusing on education, the tax bill “has the opposite psychology.”
In a recent op-ed she wrote for the Portland Press Herald, Spencer said the tax credits are “sorely needed in Maine, where barely 40 percent of residents hold college degrees, and where economists estimate that 15,000 new high-skilled positions will go unfilled unless more residents complete some level of higher education.”
“Eliminating deductions that allow working adults to retool with new skills and credentials will only widen the skills gap in Maine, making it harder for individuals to earn a living and harder for the state to attract new businesses,” she wrote.
Spencer said that plans to tax the endowments of the wealthiest private colleges and universities — a group that doesn’t include Bates — would hurt efforts to provide financial aid to students who come from less privileged backgrounds.
At Bates, she said, tapping earnings from the endowment helps make it possible to provide up to 45 percent of students with aid packages that average $43,000 apiece. It costs Bates $33 million a year, she said, but it’s a top priority to provide the assistance.
That sort of help, common at elite schools, would be jeopardized if endowments were nibbled away to provide tax cuts, higher education officials have told their elected representatives.
Spencer said she knows Congress is looking to find money anywhere it can to fund tax cuts that legislators think are necessary.
But socking higher education isn’t the way to create the new and better jobs that lawmakers promise, she said. As it is, Spencer said, the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” is counterproductive in accomplishing the goal embodied in its name.
Bates College President Clayton Spencer in her Lane Hall office in Lewiston, February 2016. (Sun Journal file photo)