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Should Colleges with Large Endowments go Shopping?

October 11, 2007

by Paulina Mis

It’s been a long year for colleges across the nation. Aside from the student lender and college study abroad fiascos, investigators are looking more closely at the handling of endowments by colleges.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, many schools have accumulated large endowment funds, some in excess of $1 billion. This is tax-free money, and if investments are well-planned, interest will lead to annual gains.

Despite this, college tuition rates have soared across the country, and students are increasingly left with debts that sometimes mirror mortgages. A proposal that could allay this problem involves forcing schools with large endowments to spend about 5 percent of their money each year, or be subject to taxes. After all, endowments are meant to aid, not hoard.

But some schools say that this is not as easy as it may seem. People who donate often leave specific instructions for endowment spending. Money may be set aside, for example, for students who are financially needy and epileptic, or for those who conduct research in the hearing sciences.

Based on the written testimony of four higher education associations, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, proposed legislation is based on inaccurate college endowment information.

According to the testimony, an average of 80 percent of endowment assets were restricted at public institutions in 2006, and 55 percent were restricted at private ones. That, of course, still leaves plenty of unrestricted funds that could be used to greatly relieve student needs. This, by the way, is what higher education associations already claim to do.

The issue is a bit of a slippery slope. Endowments could diminish if expenditure choices were left up to college officials. Plus, available money doesn’t necessarily translate into swimming pools of cash for directors to dive into. 

Then again, tuition is getting out of hand, and storing large amounts of money when students have little choice but to take out excessive loans seems a bit immoral. Perhaps additional information is needed on unrestricted money expenditures and on how much is needed to maintain interest that would keep funds afloat.


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