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Testimony of Scott Hodge Before the Senate Committee on Finance: Are Tax Credits the Proper Tool for Making Higher Education? Founded in 1937, the Tax Foundation is the nation’s oldest organization dedicated to promoting economically sound tax policy at the federal, state, and local levels of government. For 75 years, the Tax Foundation’s research has been guided by the immutable principles of economically sound tax policy that were first outlined by Adam Smith – taxes should be neutral to economic decision making, they should be simple, transparent, stable, and they should promote economic growth. In other words, the ideal tax system should do only one thing – raise a sufficient amount of revenues to fund government activities with the least amount of harm to the economy.
Inequality is on the minds of many these days and it is commonly thought that the Bush-era tax rates are a principle cause.
To some, America may be the land of the haves and have-nots, but at the heart of that disparity is that some have a sheepskin while the others don’t. Considering the financial benefits of getting a college degree, higher education policy has shifted in recent years away from traditional loan and direct subsidy programs (such as Pell Grants) toward the use of various tax credits and deductions.
The  question is, is the tax code the proper tool to increase access to higher education and make college more affordable? First, these tax credits violate the principles of sound tax policy by greatly increasing the complexity and distortions in the tax code. Tax credits and subsidies undermine market forces and can actually cause price inflation for the very thing they are intended to make more affordable. The extensive use of tax credits has already knocked a record 58 million Americans off the tax rolls – 41 percent of all filers have no income tax liability after taking their credits and deductions.
The over-use of tax credits has turned the IRS into an extension of – or substitute for – other government agencies. Housing suffers a similar problem because of the plethora of tax and spending subsidies intended to promote home ownership.[1] Economists find that the mortgage interest deduction gets capitalized into the price of homes and may amplify price volatility[2], which then offsets whatever effect it has on promoting home ownership. Subsidized student loans and education credits are similarly fueling higher college costs by disconnecting student-consumers from the true cost of higher education. The cure for what ails these industries is to be weaned off the tax code, not the granting of more subsidies through increased credits and deductions.
Over the past two decades, lawmakers have increasingly asked the tax code to direct all manner of social and economic objectives, such as encouraging people to buy hybrid vehicles, purchase health insurance, buy a home, replace the home’s windows, adopt children, put them in daycare, take care of grandma, purchase school supplies, go to college, and the list goes on.
In too many respects, the IRS has become an extension of, or rather a substitute for, every other Cabinet agency – from Energy and Education to HHS and HUD. Today, as can be seen in Chart 3, a record number of Americans – 58 million, or 41 percent of all filers – now have no direct connection with the basic cost of government because they pay no income taxes. As a result of removing millions of people off the bottom of the tax rolls, we have dramatically reduced the number of people with “skin in the game.” According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bottom two quintiles – representing the bottom 40 percent of taxpayers – now have a negative income tax liability.
The means that for all practical purposes, the bottom 60 percent of taxpayers have little or no connection with the basic cost of government.
Chart 5 details the growing cost of non-refundable and refundable tax credits over the past two decades.[5] In 1990, the combined value of these credits was roughly $20 billion, after adjusting for inflation.
By 2000, non-refundable tax credits had grown to a budgetary cost of $46.5 billion, in 2012 dollars. A decade later, the combined budgetary cost of both the non-refundable and refundable tax credits reached a remarkable $224 billion in 2010. As of 2010, refundable cash payments to nonpayers comprised over half ($120 billion) of the total cost of tax credits.
Chart 6 illustrates the gradual growth of the budgetary costs of education tax credits since 1998, while Chart 7 documents the number of tax returns claiming those credits each year since 1998.
The cost of these programs held steady until 2009 with the enactment of the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC). Meanwhile, as is shown in Chart 7, the number of taxpayers claiming various education credits more than doubled between 2008 and 2010, from 7.7 million to over 16 million. The table below compares the current value of the non-refundable credits and refundable credits relative to the other large credits in 2010. Credits are only of value to taxpayers to the extent that they have an income tax liability to which those credits may be applied. As Chart 8 illustrates, roughly 30 percent of the current benefits of education tax credits accrue to taxpayers earning over $100,000 and an additional 18 percent accrues to those earning over $75,000. Problems with education credits have not reached this level, but there is cause for concern. More recently, the IG has raised red flags about taxpayers improperly claiming the American Opportunity Tax Credit. I would argue that while we should be appalled by such abuse, we should not be surprised by it. Moreover, enforcing these credits is simply asking the IRS to be more than a tax collection agency. While we all understand the value and financial benefit of getting a college degree, using the tax code to “make college more affordable” not only violates the principles of sound tax policy, but also produces serious unintended consequences. These “tax programs” – for lack of a better word – are likely contributing to the rising costs of higher education while helping to knock millions of people off the tax rolls. These are not the kind of consequences that can be cured by a simple reform of tax credits, but by a wholesale reform of the entire tax code.
Repealing the Estate Tax Would Not “Create a Permanent Aristocracy Overnight” There’s a lot of misinformation about tax policy floating around online.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Congressman Aaron Schock (R-IL) have recently introduced the Higher Education and Skills Obtainment Act, which would reform the current tax subsidies for higher education by eliminating the current assortment of education tax credits and deductions and consolidating them into one higher education credit called the Higher Education and Skills Obtainment Credit.
Lawmakers have increasingly used tax credits as a way to help students cover the cost of college. Currently, there are three tax benefits for education that create an amalgamation of tax preferences for higher educational expenses.
The American Opportunity Credit, which was a temporary expansion of the Hope Credit, is a refundable tax credit of up to $2,500.[2] With the highest income limit of all education tax benefits, married taxpayers with incomes as high as $180,000 can claim this credit. The second tax benefit, the Lifetime Learning Credit, is not as generous as the American Opportunity Credit. Although there are three tax provisions for educational expenses, taxpayers can only claim one of the three available tax benefits. This credit would be a $2,500 non-refundable tax credit (100 percent credit for the first $2,000 of qualifying expenses and 25 percent for the next $2,000). Use of the credit will be limited to people with incomes below 500 percent of the federal poverty level ($97,650 for a family of three) and will begin to phase out at 400 percent of FPL ($78,120). The bill also has provisions that seek to prevent fraud by requiring the IRS to review and verify the use of the credit to ensure that only eligible students get the credit. According to the offices of Schock and Rubio, eliminating the current credits and deduction and replacing it with this single credit, plus all the fraud limitations, will save the government around $10-15 billion over ten years, most of these savings coming from the repeal of the American Opportunity Tax Credit’s refundability. Tuition, required enrollment fees, course materials required for a course of study whether or not they are paid to the institution, and any fee associated with enrollment in a “Job Skills Training” program as defined by the Workforce Investment Act.
This proposal will consolidate the three current benefits into one, aligning all definitions of income, expenses, and eligibility requirements.
Although not as bad, higher education tax credits also suffer from additional costs due to improper payments. This proposal will attempt to reduce the amount of improper payments by requiring the IRS to enforce three new rules. With the recent expansion of the available tax preferences for higher education, especially through the American Opportunity Tax Credit, more and more taxpayers are claiming higher education tax credits.
This proposal also expands the use of the credit to qualified jobs skills training services.
There is no doubt that this proposal reduces the complexity in the tax system, saves taxpayers money by limiting these credits, and attempts to make them less susceptible to fraud. It isn’t actually clear whether tax credits for higher education expenses encourage college attendance.
It is likely that tax credits for higher education are driving up college costs rather than making them more affordable. Other research from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity found that “recent increases in financial aid have not improved affordability” and argue that this is due to the fact that colleges are able to “capture the aid” by increasing their tuition.[12] In other words, schools know that students receive this tax subsidy, raise their prices, and capture most of the subsidy.
The Higher Education and Skills Obtainment Credit proposal certainly has provisions that improve the tax code.


The Asheville Jung Center is pleased to offer continuing education credits for our DVD’s and webstreaming video.
The Asheville Jung Center is a National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) – Approved Continuing Education Provider (ACEP) and may offer NBCC – approved clock hours for events that meet NBCC requirements. It is has become the mantra that has defined one of the most charged moments in recent times: that this is a presidential election unlike any other, taking place during a chaotic time of roiling unrest, at home and abroad. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today on the issues surrounding education and taxes. At the bottom end of the income scale, about 70 percent of low-income Americans have a high school degree or less, whereas at the other extreme 78 percent of those earning over $250,000 have a college education or better.
But there are serious practical reasons we should be wary of using such policies and this will be the focus of my testimony today. It is clear that higher education is headed down the same path as health care and housing for the same reasons. In addition to the lost revenues from having so many people off the tax rolls, and the social cost of having so many Americans with no skin in the game, our research suggests that the 20 year growth in nonpayers is associated with more than $200 billion in higher transfer spending this year.
Instead, the tax code should be overhauled by eliminating all of these provisions while flattening tax rates.
For example, the tax preference for employer-provided health insurance creates a classic third-party payer problem in which patient-consumers are disconnected from the cost of service.
The actual economic benefits of those capitalized costs tend to flow to the home builders and realtors, who have naturally been the most vocal opponents of eliminating the deduction.
In turn, the benefits of these programs get capitalized into tuition costs because universities can boost tuitions without suffering the normal market backlash. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reports that the amount of outstanding student loan debt has topped $1 trillion.
But perhaps the most troubling development in recent years is that the efforts of lawmakers to use the tax code to help low and middle-income taxpayers has knocked millions of taxpayers off the tax rolls and turned the IRS into an extension of the welfare state.
More worrisome is the fact that the middle quintile – representing the middle 20 percent of taxpayers – has an overall effective tax rate nearing zero, just 1.3 percent. Indeed, to them the IRS is a source of cash benefits because of the growth in refundable tax credits.
Of that amount, the budgetary cost of basic tax credits was around $8 billion, while  refundable credits totaled $12 billion. The child credit was, by far, the biggest portion of this at more than $25 billion, after adjusting for inflation. To put this cost in perspective, it is larger than the budgetary cost for the tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, which is the largest tax expenditure in the federal budget. The largest refundable credits in 2010 were the EITC ($59 billion), and the refundable portions of the child credit ($27.5 billion) and the Making Work Pay Credit ($16 billion).
The AOTC is more generous than the Hope Credit – it is worth 100 percent of the first $2,000 of education expenses compared to $1,200. Moreover, the IRS distributed $8 billion in refundable American Opportunity credits in 2009 and another $6.7 billion in 2010.
In 2010, some 12 million taxpayers received refundable AOTC credits even though they had no income tax liability. Because the value of a tax deduction depends upon the marginal tax rate faced by the taxpayer, many of the largest and well known tax preferences – such as the mortgage interest deduction, deduction for state-local taxes, and the deduction for student loan interest –tend to benefit upper-income taxpayers because they are the taxpayers who itemize. As we’ve seen, this is becoming increasingly difficult because so many taxpayers are off the tax rolls because of the plethora of generous tax credits. They increase the cost of compliance for taxpayers and the IRS, and they are susceptible to fraud. For instance, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration has found that, “Some taxpayers are claiming the Hope Credit for more years than allowed by law.” [9] The limit is two years but some were found to claim the credit for three and even four years.
It is asking it to manage a social program – a role far beyond what it is designed to perform. This, in turn, is disconnecting millions of people from the basic cost of government and transforming the IRS into an extension of the Department of Education and the welfare system.
Canada does not have a mortgage interest deduction, yet its rate of homeownership is equal to that in the U.S. Maag and Katie Fitzpatrick, “Federal Financial Aid for Higher Education: Programs and Prospects,” Urban Institute, January, 2004. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, before the Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Oversight, U.S.
Usually, the Tax Foundation can’t take the time to correct every erroneous claim about federal taxes that we run across on the internet.
Bush said “Read my lips: no new taxes” to the Republican National Convention when accepting the presidential nomination. This proposal reduces some complexity that exists in the current tax benefits for higher education, targets the credits for a narrower population of taxpayers, and saves taxpayers money. Tax credits for higher education are likely contributing to rising tuition costs while not making students any more likely to enroll in college. From 1998, the first year these credits were available, to 2010, the use and cost of these credits has greatly increased.
Each of these preferences has different benefit sizes, income limits, income definitions, and qualifying expenses. On the other end, since this credit is refundable, taxpayers can receive the credit even without a tax liability. This provision gives taxpayers a non-refundable credit up to $2,000 on qualifying expenses and has an income limit of $124,000 for married taxpayers. This means a taxpayer must calculate their income, school expenses, and potential tax savings for each of the benefits above to determine which one would be greater. Qualified expenses would be defined as tuition and enrollment fees, course-related books, and required supplies and equipment. It will be limited only to students that attend school at least half-time, and the credit will have a lifetime limit of four years. This means that mere compliance with the tax code will cost society more than any direct cost it has to taxpayers. This will simplify this part of the tax code, saving taxpayers time and money when they file their taxes.
First, it requires the IRS to review the Department of Education database file to confirm that a student meets the requirement of attending at least half-time. In fact, the most recent expansion in the law allows married taxpayers with income as high as $180,000, more than three times the median household income of $50,813, to claim the refundable American Opportunity Tax Credit. The credit’s value will begin to phase out at 400 percent, reaching zero at 500 percent of the FPL. This will limit the credit to only those with tax liabilities, since you cannot credit against a tax liability of zero. This will allow individuals who participate in job skills training at Workforce Investment Act (WIA) designated providers to claim this credit. However, the fact remains that tax credits for higher education may not be the best way to encourage college attendance. Chart 3 shows that since 2000, the average college tuition for two- and four-year colleges and universities has increased by 35 percent, adjusted for inflation. It simplifies the current tax benefits for higher education by reducing the number of provisions from three to one.
As the evidence suggests, credits do little to encourage college attendance and may be driving up the cost of college education. It was set to expire in 2012 but subsequently extended five more years in the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. In the absence of this repeal, the American Opportunity Credit will expire and be replaced by the Hope Tax Credit in 2017. Martin & Andrew Gillen, How College Pricing Undermines Financial Aid, Center for College Affordability and Productivity Policy Paper (Mar.
A time when a cluster of explosive political issues, from terrorism to racism to climate change, has each taken on a demanding urgency—even as the country is divided along partisan and economic lines. One of the biggest contributors to rising inequality in America today is the growing earnings gulf between workers with college degrees and those without.


There is also a strong correlation between the growth in nonpayers and increases in the national debt. The cost of health care is soaring because we have an unlimited demand for health care due to the belief that someone else is paying the bills.
Since 1997, however, lawmakers have increasingly turned to the tax code to help students and families with education costs.
Within five years, the number of taxpayers claiming these credits had climbed to over 7 million, while the inflation-adjusted costs increased to over $7 billion.  In other words, the average taxpayer claimed roughly $1,000 in education tax credits. It also allowed taxpayers with higher incomes can claim the credit – it phases out at $180,000 for joint filers compared to $120,000 for the Hope Credit.
The only way to provide more tax benefits to these taxpayers is to simply write them a check in the form of a refundable tax credit. As it stands, simply complying with the tax code costs taxpayers an estimate $163 billion each year.
Although this reform is a step in the right direction towards a simpler tax code, there is still room for a conversation about whether the tax code is the right tool for making college more affordable. Chart 1 shows the cost of higher education tax credits has grown from $4.5 billion in 1998 to more than $24 billion in 2010. Table 1 shows the three available tax benefits for education expenses, their requirements, and their limitations. This means instead of reducing an individual taxpayer’s tax bill, it reduces their taxable income. It also expands the definition of eligible education expenses to those enrolled in eligible job skills training programs identified by the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). Second, it will require the IRS to review previous years’ tax returns to ensure taxpayers don’t improperly claim credits for more than four years. Taxpayers, through the Lifetime Learning Credit, can also receive a subsidy for as many years of education as they want, which extends the availability of the credit to those seeking education past a bachelor’s degree.
Repealing the refundability portion, which has been responsible for the majority of the increased cost of this program, will save taxpayers around $8 billion over ten years alone.[9] Additionally, refundable tax credits are economically identical to cash transfers such as the Pell Grant program. As long as a taxpayer has higher education expenses, they can get a tax benefit, especially through the Lifetime Learning Credit. Since WIA workforce training programs are aimed at those with lower incomes and without access to college, this proposal could be seen as a way to encourage lower-income individuals to receive education through the use of the tax credit.
One of the first papers that analyzed the behavioral effects of the Hope and Lifetimes Learning Credits found that the credits did not increase the likelihood of college attendance. It attempts to pare back the recent growth in tax education credits by changing income eligibility levels and abolishing refundability. Perhaps these issues will encourage a wider discussion on whether tax credits for higher education are appropriate tax policy. In 2017, the credit will no longer be refundable and will revert back to a maximum benefit of $1,800 per eligible student. The order will give you a link to watch the video, a transcript of the seminar itself (if available), a link to take a basic exam on the material, and a link to give us an evaluation of your experience.  You will then be able to download your CE Certificate. Against this backdrop, the current nominees, two of the most disliked candidates in the past ten election cycles, can seem almost like a fall from the height of one of our best achievements. According to the National Taxpayer Advocate, tax complexity is the number one issue facing taxpayers and the IRS today.
Indeed, as can be seen in Chart 1, the median income for a worker with a 4-year college degree was $75,568 in 2010.
The market forces that deliver quality goods at low prices for everything from toasters to automobiles have been disrupted in the health care system because it is tax preferred. And, unlike housing and consumer debt, people cannot walk away from these loans in bankruptcy or dump them in short sales.
Refundable credits amounted to $43.4 billion in 2000, nearly all of which was attributed to the EITC. Roughly two-thirds of these costs were comprised of the non-refundable portions of the Making Work Pay Credit and the Child Credit. Turner, “The mortgage interest deduction and its impact on homeownerhip decisions,” August 2010. Taxpayers can receive this tax credit as long as they have qualifying educational expenses anytime in their life.
The deduction allows up to a $4,000 deduction and has an income limit of $160,000 for married taxpayers.
Third, it will also require that the social security number of the student appear on the tax return. This will limit the number of families with higher-than-average incomes who take advantage of the higher education tax credits.
It doesn’t make sense to have a redundant transfer program when funding for Pell Grants could be used instead. This proposal will limit the use of tax credits for the most part to those seeking a bachelor’s degree by imposing a four year lifetime limit.
The purpose of the higher education tax credits is to help families with this ever-increasing cost of college tuition.
It also moves to reduce fraud by giving the IRS the tools to enforce the rules of the credit. The main cause of that complexity has been the proliferation of credits, deductions, and preferences built into the tax code. By contrast, the median income for a worker with only a high school diploma was nearly half as much  – $38,976. Another 24 percent of these costs were attributable to the foreign tax credit and to the education credits. Like the Lifetime Learning Credit, there is no lifetime limit on the number of years a taxpayer can claim this deduction. However, some empirical evidence suggests that tax benefits for educational expenses are doing the opposite.
There is even greater income disparity between those with high school diplomas and those with advanced degrees. While the interest deduction for student loans may give them some relief, the benefits of that deduction accrue largely to upper-middle class households.
For instance, if this credit is not used for a bachelor’s degree, it may be used to offset the cost of a master’s degree or a J.D.
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