Saturday, July 7, 2018
The recently enacted federal excise tax on private college and university endowments may not be the last congressional word relating to such endowments. Research relating to such endowments, including a recent Congressional Research Service report and a recent report out of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland therefore may have important policy implications.
The CRS report is titled College and University Endowments: Overview and Tax Policy Options. Here is the Summary:
Colleges and universities maintain endowments to directly support their activities as institutions of higher education. Endowments are typically investment funds, but may also consist of cash or property. Current tax law benefits endowments and the accumulation of endowment assets. Generally, endowment fund earnings are exempt from federal income tax. The 2017 tax revision (P.L. 115-97), however, imposes a new 1.4% excise tax on the net investment earnings of certain college and university endowments. Taxpayers making contributions to college and university endowment funds may be able to deduct the value of their contribution from income subject to tax. The purpose of this report is to provide background information on college and university endowments, and discuss various options for changing their tax treatment.
This report uses data from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) and Commonfund Institute, and the Internal Revenue Service to provide background information on college and university endowments. Key statistics, as discussed further within, include the following:
In 2017, college and university endowment assets were $566.8 billion. Endowment assets have been growing, in real terms, since 2009. Endowment asset values fell during the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and took several years to fully recover.
Endowment assets are concentrated, with 12% of institutions holding 75% of all endowment assets in 2017. Institutions with the largest endowments (Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford) each hold more than 4% of total endowment assets.
The average spending (payout) rate from endowments in 2017 was 4.4%. Between 1998 and 2017, average payout rates have fluctuated between 4.2% and 5.1%. In recent years, institutions with larger endowments have tended to have higher payout rates.
In 2017, endowment assets earned a rate of return of 12.2%, on average. Larger institutions tended to earn higher returns. Larger institutions also tended to have a larger share of assets invested in alternative strategies, including hedge funds and private equity.
Changing the tax treatment of college and university endowments could be used to further various policy objectives. Current-law tax treatment could be modified to increase federal revenues. The tax treatment of college and university endowments could also be changed to encourage additional spending from endowments on specific purposes (tuition assistance, for example).
Policy options discussed in this report include (1) a payout requirement, possibly similar to that imposed on private foundations, requiring a certain percentage of funds be paid out annually in support of charitable activities; (2) modifying the excise tax on endowment investment earnings; (3) a limitation on the charitable deduction for certain gifts to endowments; and (4) a change to the tax treatment of certain debt-financed investments in strategies often employed by endowments.
The Federal Reserve Bank report is authored by one the Bank's Senior Research Economists and titled simply College Endowments. Here are the first three paragraphs (footnotes omitted):
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (Public Law 115-97) was signed into law by President Trump on December 22, 2017. Among the law’s numerous provisions is a new 1.4 percent tax on the investment income of private colleges and universities enrolling at least 500 students and with assets of at least $500,000 per student.
Opinions on this “endowment tax” vary. Some commentators argue that it makes it more difficult for colleges and universities to fulfill their educational missions, while others feel that it rightly incentivizes them to spend endowment funds on beneficial research and teaching rather than receiving tax advantages to invest their endowments in risky assets.
No matter what the case may be, now is an opportune time to take a deeper look at college endowments. What are endowments, and what is their purpose? How have the values of endowments at US colleges fluctuated over time, and what is their distribution currently? How many colleges will be affected by the new law? I consider these questions using data on college endowments from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.