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Endowment Spending Transparency Advocated in Senate Finance Committee Hearing

September 9, 2008

by Emily

In a hearing yesterday, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa suggested that he would back off from his proposal of mandating that colleges and universities spend five percent of their endowments on financial aid, provided schools continue to voluntarily increase grant and scholarship awards to students as many have been doing this year.

This is the latest development in a series of events that began unfolding when Congress began looking into the endowment spending of several of the country's wealthiest universities earlier this year.  Legislation to mandate increased endowment spending has since been proposed and withdrawn, as several schools with large endowments began offering significantly larger financial aid packages to their students.

The panel, which was made up of representatives of several universities and the Senate Finance Committee also discussed the rising cost of college education, what schools and lawmakers can and should do in the face of the issue, and the importance of flexibility in endowment spending.  Lawmakers and educators are both concerned about the increasing burden of student loan debt on American students, but colleges are also concerned about being forced to spend more than they can afford to assist students with their tuition payments.

Primary among their concerns, though, was an increase in transparency of university endowments and spending habits.  Colleges were more willing to agree to making information about their endowments and spending available to the public, as opposed to accepting a mandate for how much they are required to spend on student financial aid each year.  Grassley also introduced a plan to make colleges fill out a Form 990, the tax form all nonprofits file, using a version of the form similar to the one designed for hospitals.

While the Senate Finance Committee has moved away from requiring colleges to devote a substantial portion of endowment spending to helping students pay for school, Sen. Grassley's words seem to suggest that if schools don't keep up their efforts to make attending college more affordable for their students, Congress may yet decide to intervene.

Hopefully, what this will mean for students is a continued increase in campus-based aid programs, such as scholarship opportunities and grants and fellowships.  At the very least, it looks like it may be getting even easier to compare information about spending habits of various schools in your college search, being able to ultimately arrive at a better determination of which schools are most likely to want to help you afford to attend.

Inside Higher Ed has more complete coverage of the hearing available here.


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