The New Federal Tuition Tax
Description of State Policy Alternatives
Selected Bibliography
About the National Center
State-by-State Data

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Federal Tuition Tax Credits
Page 6 of 10


The Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 provides to eligible students and, in many cases, their families, a wide array of federal income tax benefits, including tax credits, savings incentives, and a student loan interest deduction. This new law represents a dramatic increase in the federal government's investment in higher education; once the new benefits are fully used by taxpayers, the tax provisions are projected to almost equal all other forms of federal student financial aid programs combined. The new law also represents a dramatic shift in how the federal government invests in education after high school, for two reasons. First, the new law uses the incentives of the tax code rather than outright grants, scholarships or loans to help students and their families pay for college. As a result, estimates of the cost of the provisions are based not on expected expenditures, but on foregone revenues. Secondly, the new tax provisions are not need-based. In fact, as the analysis in this guide reveals, the primary beneficiaries of the new tax credits and savings incentives are middle income and upper-middle income taxpayers. The student loan interest deduction will most likely benefit students of all incomes.

While the benefits of the new federal tax provisions flow directly to individual taxpayers, the new law has significant implications for state higher education finance. Many states have already begun to consider the implications of the new law for their college-going populations, and to discuss state policy alternatives. This guide recommends that as each state considers whether and, if necessary, how to adapt its own policies in response to the federal initiative, the governor and legislature should affirm that:

  • affordability problems are addressed for all income groups, and
  • any new state policies at least maintain current levels of state support for higher education.

This guide recommends that each state conduct its own analysis of the effects of the tax provisions on its own current and prospective college-going populations, so that state policy makers can know how citizens are benefiting from the federal tax policies, can identify gaps in college opportunity, and can effectively analyze the options for addressing them.

The overriding purpose of the new federal tax provisions is to make college more affordable. It now depends on state policy makers to ensure that families from all income levels receive assistance as they aspire to one of America's most important goals: sending their children to college.


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