Should huge college endowments pay tax?
A Massachusetts proposal, the first of its kind, would impose a 2.5 percent tax on the portion of endowments above $1 billion.
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Representative Kujawski says he values the contributions of these colleges. But he's heard from donors to places like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who have encouraged him to stand his ground. "They feel that these schools, with the amount of wealth they have, could enhance the areas [in which they reside]," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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The Massachusetts House passed an amendment in its recent budget deliberations that would require the Department of Revenue to study the 2.5 percent tax idea. Kujawski says he believes there will be support for the study on the Senate side as well, and that would inform future legislation.
A college could legally challenge such a tax based on a provision in the Massachusetts constitution that prohibits arbitrary distinction between similar taxpayers, Doherty says. But because the distinction is based on asset levels, it wouldn't be arbitrary but legitimate, counters Dean Zerbe, national managing director of alliantgroup, a Houston tax-services firm. He is also a former counsel to the US Senate Finance Committee, which has been investigating college-endowment issues.
The Senate Finance Committee recently requested, for the first time, detailed endowment data from 136 schools that have amassed at least $500 million. Staffers are analyzing the responses before deciding whether to introduce legislation.
One idea gaining ground in congressional discussions would be to require colleges to spend at least 5 percent of their endowments each year, which private foundations already must do.
Lynne Munson favors that idea. She is studying endowments as an adjunct fellow at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, and she says that higher-education officials sometimes exaggerate how much endowments are restricted by specific requests from donors. At private colleges, an average of 45 percent of endowment funds are unrestricted, she says.
Aggressive investment has led to high returns on endowments for the past 10 years, Ms. Munson adds. "Colleges and universities have had at least a decade to come up with a strategy for ... putting those monies to work for students, families, and taxpayers, yet they've neglected to do so," she says.
Congress's scrutiny of higher-education costs appears to have already prompted some good news on affordability. Harvard and at least two dozen other schools have created policies in recent months to increase grant aid for students or to cut tuition.
Those moves have pleased Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, says press secretary Jill Gerber, but they "are likely just a drop in the bucket." Hundreds of schools have large endowments, and "even schools with smaller endowments should still look at whether they can do more to help with affordability," she says.
The Massachusetts tax proposal has "changed this debate quite a bit" in Washington, says Mr. Zerbe. "If the universities aren't forthcoming, there will be a rising frustration level," and more members of Congress might think about looking at a tax, he says.
But the relationship between tuition and endowments isn't so clear-cut, says Mr. Hamill of the college business officers association. "There's been a tendency to think of an endowment as like a giant checkbook ... and the reality of managing an endowment is significantly different," he says. "The government is not going to be a good regulator of this issue."
Endowments' average rate of return: 17.2 percent
Average spending rate (percentage of the endowment contributed to operating and capital budgets): 4.6 percent
Average spending rate for endowments above $1 billion: 4.4 percent, down from 5.3 percent in 2003, the high for the past 10 years
The number of endowments topping $1 billion: 76, including some public universities such as University of Michigan and University of Virginia
Top three endowments:
Harvard: $34.6 billion
Yale: $22.5 billion
Stanford: $17.2 billion
Source: 2007 Endowment Study, National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO)
Figures are for fiscal year 2007.