Higher tax deductions urged to ease college tuition burden

Torricelli, Holt outline legislation at Rider University.

By: Jennifer Potash
   LAWRENCE — After the euphoria over a college acceptance letter wears off, many would-be college students are left with anxiety over how to pay for their education.
   U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) and U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12) outlined proposed legislation in their respective houses aimed at helping families cope with college tuition costs during a visit to Rider University on Monday.
   The proposals would increase the amount of tuition students and their families may take as deductions on their federal income tax.
   "A college education is the foundation of our nation’s economic future," said Sen. Torricelli.
   The senator is up for re-election this year while facing ethical allegations. The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced in December that he would not face federal charges following a lengthy investigation of fund-raising activities during his 1996 campaign. The matter was referred to the Senate Ethics Committee.
   Rep. Holt, a physicist formerly with the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, is seeking his third term in the House of Representatives.
   Monday’s press conference follows the recent release of two reports, one titled "Losing Ground," issued by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and a congressional report, "Slamming Shut the Doors to College."
   The reports found that public colleges are becoming unaffordable for many American families, that federal and state financial aid to students has failed to keep pace with tuition increases and that low-income families are going into greater debt than before to pay for college.
   Flanked by four Rider University political science majors, Sen. Torricelli said when tax cut legislation comes before the Senate this year, he will submit an amendment to increase the tax deduction for college tuition from $4,000 to $10,000. He said he has support from his colleagues for the amendment.
   He supported President George Bush’s tax cut in 2001 because the legislation contained the senator’s amendment to allow college students or their families to take up to a $4,000 tax deduction on college tuition for families earning up to $130,000. Families earning between $130,000 and $160,000 may deduct $2,000 per year.
   "I consider that to be the single most important achievement of my accomplishments so far in the United States Congress," Sen. Torricelli said. He served seven terms in the House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate in 1996.
   The expanded tax deduction would cover the tuition expenses at state colleges and universities such as Rutgers University, said Sen. Torricelli, a Rutgers alumnus.
   Soon-to-be college graduates should not be burdened with thousands of dollars in debt, which could limit their ability to go to graduate school or take public service jobs such as teaching or policing, Sen. Torricelli said.
   Sen. Torricelli disagreed with the arguments of proponents for more direct college aid that tax breaks benefit the middle class over poorer families.
   With a $10,000 tax deduction, poorer families would pay almost nothing in federal income taxes, Sen. Torricelli said.
"I think that’s the better choice," he said.
   Rep. Holt said his corresponding legislation would allow families with more than one child in college to deduct up to $15,000.
   "I think this can make an enormous difference," said Rep. Holt, a Hopewell Township resident.
   Rep. Holt, who serves on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said he intends to seek an increase for the federal Pell grants, which help the neediest students, from the existing maximum of $4,000 to at least $4,500.
   He criticized a proposal floated last week by the Bush administration to reduce the grants to $3,900 at a time when those grants cover only 39 percent of college tuition costs, compared to covering three-quarters of the costs 29 years ago.
   Another avenue to reduce the burden of college tuition on middle-income families, said Sen. Torricelli, would be to increase the income caps for federal student loans, now set at $80,000.
   Families earning $80,000 in states with high costs of living, such as New Jersey, are often squarely in the middle class, the senator said.
   "In Mississippi, $80,000 a year might be the lap of luxury," Sen. Torricelli said.
   David Rebovitch, a Rider University assistant professor and managing director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics, said the announcement was partly political in nature for the senator, to remind voters of his legislative accomplishments in addition to his prolific fund-raising for the Democratic Party.
   "Also, the issue of tax credits for college education extends beyond his base of Democratic voters and that’s important during an election year when many voters are unaffiliated or independents," Mr. Rebovitch said.
   Adaluz J. Veloz, a Rider University junior, said the proposed increase would be welcome relief toward her $19,240 tuition next year as she left the news conference to go to the financial aid office.