Republican Tax Plan for Colleges Is a Self-Inflicted Wound

The changes would undermine higher ed, one of the few areas where America still earns top marks.

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Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

The tax reform plan now making its way through Congress has a number of measures that would hurt higher education in the U.S. The most worrying feature is that it would tax tuition waivers for graduate students as income, making it much more expensive for most students to get a Ph.D. It would also end tax deductibility for student-loan interest payments, dramatically increasing the already-crushing burden of debt for many former students, and deterring many young people from going to college in the first place.

This is a very bad idea. The U.S. university system is one of the country’s most important remaining economic advantages. Even as manufacturing industries have moved to China, the U.S. has retained its dominance in higher education. The research and technology output of American universities, and the skilled postgraduate workers they produce, are an important anchor keeping knowledge industries -- Silicon Valley, the pharmaceutical industry and the oil services industry, to name just three -- clustered in the country, instead of fleeing to places with lower labor costs. Degrade higher education, and the U.S. will become a much less attractive place for cutting-edge industries, and less important to the global economy.

Why are Republican legislators setting the country on such a self-destructive course? It might simply be an oversight -- a result of congressional aides looking for ways to pay for tax cuts. But there might also be an ideological force at work here. In the past two years, there has been a dramatic negative shift in Republicans’ opinions of universities:

Down on Academia

Share of Republicans who say colleges and universities have a positive effect on the way things are going in the U.S.

Source: Pew Research Center

There could be several reasons for this change, but it seems obvious that the most important one is the increasingly strident wave of student protests. In 2015, Yale students forced the resignation of two administrators who defended the wearing of Halloween costumes that some students considered culturally insensitive. At Evergreen State College in Washington, student riots brought the campus to a standstill after a professor refused to participate in an event that encouraged all white people to leave campus. At Middlebury College in Vermont, student protesters injured a professor assigned to accompany a controversial speaker around campus. And at Reed College in Oregon, student protests have become so commonplace that they have reportedly shut down some classes.

The disruptiveness of these protests isn't new; students in the 1960s regularly occupied campus buildings. Violence of the type at Middlebury is also very rare. But the almost ludicrous triviality of the issues that have sparked the latest round of student activism has convinced many observers that universities are becoming an illiberal, intolerant place, where even the mildest dissenting views are intimidated into silence by the all-powerful will of the self-righteous mob.

A second reason -- less widely publicized but well-known in intellectual circles -- is the increasing politicization of the humanities and social sciences. The professoriate always leaned somewhat to the left, but during the past 20 years the disparity has become much more pronounced, with 60 percent of professors now identifying as “liberal or far left.” In the social sciences, those attitudes are now spilling over into research, threatening the scientific ideal of objectivity. Self-organized groups of academic activists now regularly call for -- and often receive -- the retraction of papers based on explicitly ideological grounds.

It’s understandable that conservatives would read these stories and conclude that universities are hotbeds of political leftism that need to be starved of resources. But it’s also a big mistake.

The problem of ideological intolerance on campuses is exaggerated by the availability heuristic -- the natural tendency of human beings to assume that a few well-publicized incidents are indicative of a common, rampant phenomenon. Student protests are common, and always have been -- protesting perceived injustices, however trivial, is a natural part of the college experience and a rite of passage for young people exploring their newfound individuality and independence. The kind of violence seen at Middlebury, or the extreme disruptiveness at Evergreen State, is a rarity. If colleges take steps to punish students who become violent or overly disruptive -- as Middlebury did -- the current crop of campus protests will not constitute any real threat to anything.

Ideological contamination of the social sciences will be more difficult to correct, thanks to the tenure system, and the fact that so few conservatives seem to want to become academic sociologists. But even here, moderate social scientists are beginning to push back against conformity and groupthink. And a number of studies have shown that professors usually don’t indoctrinate their students with their own political attitudes, instead acting as a moderating influence on students. In other words, students tend to self-radicalize and direct criticism at professors they don't deem sufficiently sympathetic.

So Republicans shouldn’t panic over leftism on campus. Instead, they should be thinking about the real problems facing universities. The biggest is the crippling debts that students take on in order to finance their education, constraining their lives and careers for decades to come. This is exacerbated by the high and rising cost of college, much of which goes to pay for inefficient administrative costs. A second problem is the proliferation of unreliable or spurious scientific research -- a function of young professors’ need to prove their skills by publishing papers, whether they’ve found anything worth publishing. A third problem is the oversupply of underpaid adjunct faculty.

These are all real concerns for the U.S. academic system. Fixing them would improve the country’s already world-beating system, improving both the flow of research insights to high-technology industries and the production of skilled workers. Instead, it looks like Republicans intend to strike at the university system out of misplaced ideological ire. In doing so, they may kill -- or at least, wound -- one of the last outposts of excellence in the U.S. economy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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