Connecticut is going through the motions of trying to tax Yale’s $25.6 billion endowment to help relieve the state’s $266 million shortfall. That effort will fail, but public opinion is starting to question the appropriateness of government-conferred tax benefits for university endowment funds. At Harvard, alumni as politically diverse as conservative Ron Unz and progressive Ralph Nader are running for the Board of Overseers on a “make tuition free” platform.
What legitimate public purpose do endowments serve? The co-authors of this article spent several months exploring this question, looking at roughly 800 university endowment funds on which good data are available and concluding that, with some exceptions, endowments do little to make colleges cheaper and more accessible to students. Suppose a wealthy donor gives a school funds to endow $100,000 annually in scholarships. Our research shows that probably on net $100,000 in endowment income leads to a student tuition fee decline of only about $13,000. As more endowed scholarship money flows in, universities typically either raise tuition fees more aggressively, or allocate less of their own resources to scholarships.
Princeton University had more than $2.8 million in endowment per student as of last June 30-enough to generate $112,000 in spending per student if four percent of the endowment were spent annually. Princeton’s tuition fee for this year is $43,450. More typical schools have modest endowments generating at most $1,000 in per-student annual revenues.
Yet the more typical school likely has a sticker price at least $25,000 a year less than the highly endowed institutions. The average amount students actually pay after taking account of scholarships is only $3000 lower at the 20 highest endowment schools, compared with schools with more typical modest endowments. That is despite the fact that the high endowment schools have over $20,000 more endowment income per student.
If endowments only modestly make college more affordable, where does endowment income go? A goodly portion (we estimate about 37 percent) goes to support instruction, both by hiring lots more professors and by paying them a lot more. While there are about 12 professors for every 100 students at highly endowed schools, there are only half as many (6) at more typically endowed institutions. Similarly, while full professors at the poorer school average about $90,000 a year in salary, at the highly endowed schools, the figure is more than $155,000.
Some of this increased instructional money probably leads to smaller classes and more contact between students and professors, some of whom are both well-known scholars and fine teachers. Yet as any keen observer of higher education knows (one of us has been a professor for more than 50 years), the highly endowed school faculty mostly have very low teaching loads so they can write papers on often obscure academic specialties, and the more highly paid teachers not only live quite well (particularly when consulting and other income is considered), but often avoid undergraduate students like the plague. As Adam Smith said of professors 240 years ago after Oxford started paying them from endowments, they had “given up altogether the pretense of teaching.” Additionally, the statistical evidence also says about 25 percent of endowment income goes directly for research.
Not all schools behave the same way. Berea College, in relatively poor Appalachian Kentucky, uses its endowment to essentially make college free, foregoing high salaries and extremely low teaching loads to promote student access. A few other schools (College of the Ozarks in Missouri, and, historically, Cooper Union in New York City (now charging tuition) have done the same.
Do big endowments promote prestige and perceptions of high quality? Looking at the relationship between endowment size and rankings on the Forbes Best College list (which we help compile), we find some positive relationship between endowment size and rank, but it is not the dominant determinant.
Still, the five schools with the highest per student endowments (Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Pomona College and Harvard) are all very highly ranked.
Universities argue endowment allocations are determined by the intent of thousands of donors, many of whom wish to promote things other than low tuition. Yet the Berea example demonstrates that colleges poorer than the Ivy League schools can use alumni support to make college free. Why hasn’t Harvard, Yale or Princeton ever mounted a capital campaign with a-goal of providing no-cost undergraduate education? A no-cost Harvard would set a powerful example and encourage other schools to forego the expensive university arms race in order to reduce financial burdens of attending college.
As tuition fees and student debt loads soar, and as doubts grow about the true return to students of a college education (total enrollments have actually fallen over the past four years), scrutiny of endowments is likely to grow. Pell Grant data reveals that highly endowed schools typically have a much smaller proportion of low-income students. Should they continue to be incentivized to strengthen their academic gated communities for the affluent by accumulating ever larger endowments, largely financed through special tax breaks to donors and capital gains tax exclusions? There are arguments for doing so, but our research suggests that if special tax privileges for endowments are curtailed by Washington policymakers, the colleges have only themselves to blame.