The Reverse GI Bill

Republican tax reform will gut decades of work to make college affordable.

By Peter Fenn, Opinion Contributor | Nov. 28, 2017, at 12:00 p.m.

In June of 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the GI Bill, a bipartisan effort spearheaded by the American Legion to provide benefits for returning veterans. By 1956, 7.8 million vets had used the GI Bill for their education. In many ways, this legislation became the engine of economic growth in post-war America. It was an integral part of achieving the American dream. Education was viewed by those of all political persuasions as a key to success, to competing in the world, to personal fulfillment.

So, what has happened to that commitment to education?

Sadly, we see poll numbers that show anything but a bipartisan commitment. In just two years, according to Pew, we have seen the percentage of Republicans who believe “colleges and universities have a positive effect on the way things are going in this country” plummet from 54 to 36. We have watched as Republican legislatures and governors in states like Arizona and Alabama and Louisiana and Kansas and Wisconsin put in place drastic budget cuts for higher education. Eighteen states cut funding per student by more that 20 percent, and eight of those states cut it by over 30 percent.

Now the Republicans in Congress want to get into the act with this tax bill that demeans, demotes and denigrates our students. The House bill reduces tax benefits and savings for all college students by $65 billion.

The Republican tax bill:

  • Repeals the interest deduction for student loans. This affects over 12 million borrowers.
  • Repeals the $2,500 tax credit that middle-class parents can take.
  • Will force graduate students to pay taxes on the tuition waivers they receive, forcing many to leave school.
  • Places a 1.4 percent excise tax on college endowments that exceed a specific limit, which will affect over 150 colleges and reduce the funds these institutions have for scholarships for needy students.

We should be calling this “the reverse GI Bill” – how to undermine the American dream. Ted Mitchell, President of the American Council on Education, wrote in The Washington Post, “The bill would, in one fell swoop, set back by decades the effort to make the cost of college more affordable for individuals from all walks of life.”

If anything, this legislation seems to be punitive, an appeal to the extremist Republican base, a sop to the Trump vision, an absurd anti-intellectual effort. In a recent story, the Post quoted a former Arizona legislator who believes “liberal professors teach ‘ridiculous’ classes and indoctrinate students ‘who hang out and protest all day long and cry on our dime.'” Donald Trump, Jr., went further, according to the Post, in an $100,000 paid speech in Texas: “Hate speech is anything that says America is a good country. That our founders were great people. … We’ll take $200,000 of your money; in exchange we’ll train your children to hate our country.”

I can’t imagine who listens to this drivel, and it’s even harder to imagine any responsible member of Congress who buys into such inflammatory rhetoric that results in a clear and present danger to higher education. Who, in good conscience, truly believes that we should drastically cut funding that leads to an educated citizenry, vibrant economic growth, better jobs and a future for those who desire and deserve the best we can offer?

When Roosevelt signed the GI Bill, he made this comment: “It gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.”

We are letting our people down. Sadly, we are moving into an era when we devalue higher education, when we deny the critical opportunities to our young people, when we slash and burn what has been most dear to us since the founding of the republic. Is this really the road we want for America’s future? Inconceivable.