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POV: Amazon Needs Higher Education. So Does Everyone Else

Yet the tax plan currently before Congress will make higher education less accessible

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It’s easy to see why most handicappers of the competition for Amazon’s second headquarters put Boston high on the list of likely winners. It’s the same reason that General Electric decided to move its headquarters to Boston last year. Boston is the country’s capital of higher education. The area’s dozens of colleges and universities yield an eager workforce with the depth and breadth of skills required by 21st-century business.

One recent survey, by the London-based weekly Times Higher Education, found that 3 of the top 10 schools graduating the world’s most employable grads are along the Charles River. The 2017 survey, which asks business leaders around the world to rate the employability of graduates of 150 universities in 33 countries, puts Harvard in second place, MIT in fourth, and Boston University in sixth. By any standard, Boston’s workforce is primed for Amazon.

Harvard and MIT are long-standing residents of such lists. BU is not, and its newfound status is not an accident of fate. The University has invested years of effort and millions of dollars identifying and embedding in our programs and our teaching the critical skills needed to build the businesses of the future.

From a business perspective, Amazon’s or others, you’d think we’d want more graduates in the higher education pipeline, not fewer. Higher education is, after all, the business behind business, and it becomes more important every year. Professional competency, communication skills, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, social and cultural awareness, and leadership are all qualities sought by employers. They are the DNA of businesses of the future, and they are the product of higher education.

So it’s strange and alarming that the tax plan before Congress will make higher education skills more expensive, and less accessible, to more people. For example, the version of the bill passed by the House hinders higher education in several ways: it levies a new tax on large private college endowments; it ends tax deductions for student loan payments; it taxes the value of the tuition waivers that make graduate school possible for the next generation of gifted scientists, engineers, and academic teachers; and it increases the tax burden for employees who take advantage of an employer’s tuition assistance, making is less likely that employees will take advantage of the education opportunity afforded by their employer. It also reduces the number of taxpayers who itemize their deductions, which will likely lead to a decline in donations to nonprofit entities of all kinds.

The architects of the tax plan chose to discount the importance of higher education in favor of an opportunity to indulge the growing number of Americans who doubt the value, and question the mission, of universities and colleges. A Pew Research poll published in July, for example, found that 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe colleges have a negative effect on the country. And a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC Newspoll  found that only 49 percent of Americans think a four-year degree will lead to a good job and higher lifetime earnings, while 47 percent do not.

When it comes to Amazon and where it sites its new headquarters, it’s easy to say none of that matters. Jeff Bezos knows the value of education as well as anyone. He will build his second headquarters in a place where there is a critical mass of educated workers and where this workforce wants to live and raise their families. But the denigration of higher education does matter, because the competition we face is bigger than Amazon. The competition is a global competition for competitiveness itself. It’s about innovation, critical thinking, and an educated, responsible citizenry. Those are the other products of the business behind business, and they are assets we cannot afford to lose.

Robert A. Brown is president of Boston University. This opinion piece was originally published in the Boston Globe on November 30, 2017.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

11 Comments

11 Comments on POV: Amazon Needs Higher Education. So Does Everyone Else

  • Logic on 12.01.2017 at 8:22 am

    As a Trump supporter I disagree with you 100% about education being good for business. Education is DISRUPTIVE to business- it lets anyone who has “book smarts” and nothing else come in and put established companies out of business and take jobs away from real Americans. Look at “edumacted” liberals in CA setting up wind farms that put billions of coal minors on the streets. Trump will stop that- he will keep economic power consolidated in the hands of the experts like himself and his family that know how to grow it responsibly for America.

    • A bucket of fish on 12.01.2017 at 9:07 am

      I agree with your premise but disagree with your reasoning. Education for too many people deflates the value of a degree. This is why we’ve got people who have undergrad degrees from good universities working at starbucks because they can’t find a better job. When everyone has X, having X is not good enough to qualify anyone for anything. As tragic as it may seem to university students, some people just should not go to university. It might not be fair, and it might not be equal, but it is efficient. To argue we all need higher education is to argue that we need the masters or PH.d to be the qualifying degree for desirable jobs, which does nothing but push out wprk for another few years for most people.

      Humorously enough, Trump is actually helping to fix my complaint. His election pitted a lot of people who didn’t go to college against thise they perceived as the elites. In doing so, and having them win, I think a lot of the stigma against the “uneducated,” lost effect, as people just stopped caring what was thought of them.

    • Nicole Berard on 12.01.2017 at 9:19 am

      Coal mining is on the wane for many valid reasons, but wind farms aren’t really to blame. There have never been billions of miners. I assume you’re being hyperbolic but no need to fabricate information to make a point. More important, who do you think established coal as an industry? It wasn’t miners. It was educated scientists, engineers and businessmen. Laborers have no work without educated leaders to create opportunity. Plus, without educated doctors who’s going to treat that black lung?

      • Emily on 12.01.2017 at 12:54 pm

        Working people in the US have been facing the carnage of capitalism’s decline in production and trade. Ongoing wars under Democrats and Republicans, unaffordable higher education, and increasing dangers on the job as unions are weakened – this is what millions are facing. It was coal miners in action, taking back their union in the 1970s and 80s, that reduced black lung in the coalfields and established community clinics in the most remote
        parts of Appalachia. More of those struggles are needed – from Amazon to Walmart to industries that are not disappearing due to “robotization that’s going to replace the working class”.

        • Nicole on 12.01.2017 at 3:51 pm

          Thanks for sharing this! It’s a great perspective and much needed balance to my flippant statement. It will, indeed, take all of us struggling together to improve life for us all.

  • GS on 12.01.2017 at 9:06 am

    Bob, I couldn’t disagree more … tax policy hasn’t been checked in over three decades, and it’s way overdue – for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is that higher education has run wildly amok … TOTALLY unchecked … ridiculously liberal .. and to disagree with that is to miss an entire forest for a single tree!

    Go ask a couple of your professors, and I’m certain you’ll quickly learn that – It’s those crazy white guys in DC going at it again, cause ya know, the ‘white guys’ really ARE a problem population … isn’t that what one of the fresh faced faculty was widely quoted as saying – on the national stage, embarrassing the entire university? Wasn’t it something like, ‘white masculinity isn’t a problem for America’s colleges, white masculinity is THE problem for America’s colleges’ … sure, the context was different, but the words totally apply and we both know it. Higher education has LOST its way and is mired, far too deeply, in social justice – and that’s NOT where it belongs at $65k per year!

    Candidly, shrinking donations (and I could pick apart the rest of your points too) has little to do with ‘tax deductibility’ … I’ve never once thought of making or not making mine donations for the purpose of a tax break. The real problem is that until you wash the stupidly liberal bias out of the institution, at least returning it to something resembling more of an ‘independent’ point of view, you’ll see NO further contributions from this alum … and I suspect that I’m much more common than less in the alumni base (cause we DO talk to one another and many of us are disgusted).

    But go check with Saida … I’m sure she’s got some wealthy students that’ll make up the void … and if nothing else, blame it on Trump, cause that’s what’s popular with most liberals today.

    • Chris Brooks on 12.01.2017 at 10:34 am

      You make some good points, but unfortunately they’re immediately undermined by your use of sweeping generalizations and reliance on unrelated issues; you seem to be more interested in condemning liberals and liberal talking points than defending the tax plan.

      Liberal bias of higher education aside, cultural issues aside, I think the author makes several good points. Graduate students face financial difficulties, which by itself isn’t necessarily unusual given the self-reliant nature of post-graduate work, but it leaves them vulnerable to policies like this tax plan. Speaking as a graduate student myself, I usually break even month-to-month. If this tax plan goes through, that could be enough to push me and others in similar situations into a financial tailspin.

      Of course, there are plenty of counter-arguments, but railing against the liberal agenda is not one of them. If you have genuine concerns with the opposition to this tax plan, lay them out objectively and cleanly; letting your own personal biases play into your argument only obfuscate your points and makes it easier for people to outright dismiss them.

      • GS on 12.01.2017 at 11:27 am

        Chris,
        Perhaps the most basic point is that your education is an investment in yourself … federal tax policy, the availability/deductibility or non-deductibility of things, and maybe most importantly – politics, should have nothing to do with your decision making … it’s either a good investment, or a bad investment – period!

        Our country is now $17 trillion in debt … the tax code is VERY outdated (the last major overhaul happened shortly after I graduated with the Tax Reform Act of 1986) .. some major ‘pain’ needs to be felt across the full spectrum of society. YES, those who can pay more should pick up their part, but hey, the everything should be free/deeply discounted culture that hallmarked the last 8 years is unsustainable – there’s simply not enough wealthy folks around to pay the tab!

        Large college endowments, BU notwithstanding as it really didn’t start growing materially until Dr Brown made it a priority (John Silber spent versus saved), SHOULD pay more as they’ve been nearly tax-free for as long as I can recall. Between Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton you’d find Over $100 billion – FAR MORE than is needed to ‘efficiently operate’ those institutions.

        I sort of recall that tuition/room and board was about $7,500 a year for my freshman year in 1979-80 … and while I’m not going to calculate how the cost has compounded – let’s just agree that it’s been wildly excessive if today’s tuition/room and board is nearly $65k!

        Higher education has had an absolute green field in terms of what it charges students for a VERY long time, ESPECIALLY since President 44 encouraged so many young people to pursue largely worthless degrees (in terms of employability), with borrowed funds made far too easily available …

        A real question for EVERY student to ask and explore is, am I getting $65k a year worth of ‘value’ for my money … and if you had $230k in a checking account, would you run it to ZERO to buy 4-years of that education?

        Higher education needs to ‘right size’ just like every other industry … long overdue.

  • A bucket of fish on 12.01.2017 at 9:53 am

    I should also add that one of the complaints in here has no basics in economics. The author claims that the tax plan “increases the tax burden of employees who take advantage of an employer’s tuition assistance” thus lowering the likelihood of taking it. This is not correct. The tax may SAY that not the employee must pay more, but who actually pays is based on the elasticities of the employer and employee, not what is written in the tax code. Changing this percent effectively does nothing.

  • Jose Artigas on 12.02.2017 at 7:44 pm

    On a related point, Amazon should stay the heck out of Boston — at least 100 miles away. There is NO ROOM for increased congestion & related QOL problems that will come from plunking down a 2nd HQ here. It will also exacerbate the problem of excessively high housing costs. Finally, Amazon may or may not bring 50,000 job. But they won’t all be lucrative, & many that are will go to current employees imported from outside. Thanks but no thanks!

  • Ken Tennis on 12.02.2017 at 9:56 pm

    This is a ridiculous post. Trump and the Republican’s tax plan is AMAZING for our country. We needed this to become competitive again.

    I love Trump, I want to Make America Great Again, and I’m a proud BU alumni!

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