The Case for Taxing College Endowments

Republicans inserted many provisions in their House and Senate tax reform bills that have inflamed the higher education establishment, including a proposed excise tax on endowments exceeding $250,000 per student at private schools. Although only about 70 schools are affected that collectively enroll under 10 percent of the students attending four-year American universities, from some rhetoric of university leaders you would think that the very foundation of American higher education has been dramatically impaired.

Now Universities Have Detractors

There are two good reasons why the endowment tax makes sense to some politicians. First, public attitudes toward universities have distinctly soured in recent years. What the public perceives as outrageous student behavior, feckless university leadership, and excessive tuition fees has combined with a growing hostility by Republican lawmakers angered over the large political donations and public criticism that academics have made attempting to oust them from office. Lawmakers are growing tired of feeding the mouths that bite them. Revenues raised by taxing colleges can modestly help fund other tax reductions that lawmakers want to make, which are probably economically beneficial to the well over 90 percent of the population living outside the Ivory Towers of Academia.

Second, our econometric examination of college endowments suggests a large portion of endowment income is dissipated in relatively unproductive fashions, financing a growing army of relatively well-paid university administrators and giving influential faculty low teaching loads and high salaries. We estimate that roughly only about 15 cents out of each additional dollar of endowment income goes to lower net tuition fees (published tuition fees—sticker prices– are much higher at highly endowed schools, but those schools also give more scholarship aid). When a newly endowed scholarship is created, schools typically either reduce their student aid support from other funds or raise sticker prices to capture some of the newly funded endowment resources for other purposes.

Academic Gated Communities

The late Henry Manne once suggested that so-called “not-for-profit” universities actually are “owned” in reality, if not legally, by powerful faculty and administrators. These schools generate financial surpluses that, while not legally profits, are viewed by powerful university constituencies that consider themselves the true “owners” of the university as the equivalent of profits, a large portion of which are then distributed as “dividends.”

A healthy portion of these dividends are used to provide higher salaries or other perks such as hiring lots of new administrative assistants such as more assistant deans, “sustainability coordinators” or “diversity officers” to perform irksome jobs or meet politically correct objectives such as fighting global warming or achieving the optimal skin colorization of the students and faculty. As endowments rise, so do full professor salaries and the numbers of professors serving a given number of students. To a considerable extent, endowments are a successful rent-seeking scam of the power brokers within universities

At public universities, subsidies are provided by state governments that usually are less than $1,000 a student but are occasionally higher. The five highest state appropriation levels per student among the 13 public Big Ten universities range between $10,000 and $15,000, equal to the amount that would be provided by an endowment of $250,000 per student where the annual spending rate is four to six percent of the endowment principal. Thus, the GOP excise tax on endowments takes effect only at institutions where endowment spending is generally well above the public subsidies provided at state universities.

At Princeton, the endowment per student far exceeds $2 million, providing probably at least $100,000 in university spending per student. Despite these extraordinary resources, the school still has published tuition and fees for next year of $66,510 –and, if the Princeton website is to be believed, 40 percent of students pay the full price. Why should governments subsidize gifts to increase even further the extraordinary amount of spending that goes on at academic gated communities like Princeton?

Moreover, the proposed endowment tax is actually relatively modest. Suppose a school with a $10 billion endowment (about the size of that at Northwestern or Columbia universities) had a pretty good year, making $1 billion from dividends, interest, rents, and unrealized capital gains. As I understand the proposed legislation, it would pay less than $15 million in federal excise taxes.

We usually subsidize universities because they have what economists call “positive externalities” –good spillover effects that benefit all of society. But campus riots and other campus pathologies can lead to negative externalities –bad societal spillover effects. The GOP excise tax proposal reminds me of an email written me in 2002 by Milton Friedman, in which he suggested “a full analysis…might lead you to conclude that higher education should be taxed to offset its negative externalities.”

Alerting Clueless Administrators

An endowment tax would typically raise only a few hundred million dollars annually. Why bother? It likely will not dramatically alter behavior. Still, the proposal has considerable symbolic and informational value. It does send a warning to politically relatively clueless college administrators that their special privileges as institutions should not be taken for granted, and, indeed, are under intense scrutiny.

The call for an endowment tax also receives some modest support from the fact that very large endowments have sometimes eschewed the conventional belief that these investments should be made conservatively, emphasizing publicly traded stocks and bonds. The traditional view is that investments supporting public institutions should emphasize risk minimization more than wealth maximization. Exotic hedge fund investments in the Cayman Islands and the annual payment of tens of millions of dollars to endowment managers strike many as inappropriate for universities or at least something that should not be subsidized through special tax preferences.

An excise tax on large endowments is unlikely to alter collegiate investment behavior dramatically, nor is it going to be a large revenue raiser at the proposed rate. However, neither is it likely to do much harm and it has some positive symbolic value.

3 thoughts on “The Case for Taxing College Endowments”

  1. This is quite a morally repulsive argument. Vedder and Strehle are openly admitting that this law is designed to punish universities for being too liberal, and praising it as such. That is abhorrent to the First Amendment and any semblance of free speech. What’s next? An article calling for the Trump Administration to order the IRS to audit the taxes of liberal professors? If Democrats passed a law targeting the 30 richest churches for special taxes because they think they’re conservative, would you support it? Can anyone explain to me how this is morally defensible?

  2. If, say, ten universities paid endowment excise taxes of $15 million ( as in Vedder’s example), you could pretty well finance the National endowment for the Humanities or Arts — certainly in the universities’ as well as the general public’s interest.

  3. Not to mention that many if not most of these highly privileged obnoxiously wealthy institutions greedily not satisfied with typical returns via politically correct investments (such as green vs carbon heavy fossil based energy) dishonestly launder their endowment money through nondescript off-shore third party front investment instruments in order to avoid IRS tax liability, protect their tax-exempt status and avoid criticism from their uninformed progressive donor base. Higher Ed has become a exploitative self serving racket that cries-out for regulatory oversight.

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