The high cost of the other American Dream, education

Leah Ingram Apr 13, 2012

Tess Vigeland: We just talked about student loans and taxes. So let’s merge the two with a proposal from commentator Leah Ingram.

Leah Ingram: My husband and I are finishing our 2011 tax return, the one that will determine how much financial aid our daughter gets for college next year. We already know that we’ll be disappointed.

According to the price calculators on college websites, my husband and I should be able to afford about $48,000 a year for college. With two daughters two years apart, we’ll have six years of college tuition payments, adding up to nearly $400,000, barring any increases.

Today’s college tuition is triple what my husband and I paid in the 1980s. We’ve done well in our careers — he a college administrator, me an author — and we’ve been home owners since 1999.

One of the benefits of that home ownership is the mortgage-interest tax deduction. When the tax code was introduced in 1913, it included this deduction as a way to encourage home ownership, which is still considered the America Dream. But isn’t getting a college education also the American Dream? That’s why I’m proposing that we make college tuition 100-percent tax deductible, regardless of parental income.

The government already offers some tuition tax deductions: Up to $4,000 annually, no matter how many kids you have in college, and $2,500 per student for college expenses. The catch? There are income limits to each of these tax deductions, neither of which my husband and I qualify for.

This all leaves my husband and me stuck between a financial rock and a tuition hard place: We worry we earn too much for financial aid, we’ve never earned enough to fully fund our daughters’ college savings plans and we don’t earn enough to pay the $48,000 a year for private college tuition, despite what the calculators say. Even state schools where we live in Pennsylvania are no bargain.

So imagine this: What if during the six years our two daughters will be in college, we could deduct our tuition payments on our taxes? We could give our daughters the greatest gift of all — a debt-free college education.

Vigeland: Leah Ingram is the author of 14 books, including “Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less.” What do you think of her proposal? Tweet it to me @radiotess or post on our Facebook page.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.