College and University endowments are necessary to maintain quality and excellence in American higher education. For more than 350 years, endowments have supported the mission of colleges and universities by providing funding to assist students; hire faculty; conduct research; construct facilities; and carry out other educational activities that would not have been possible if institutions had to rely solely on tuition, direct private philanthropy, or government funding.


There is a misperception by many that college and university endowments are simply slush funds that can be used by institutions however and whenever they please. There is particular attention being paid to private colleges' endowments. Many believe that most private, nonprofit colleges and universities have billions in endowment funds, while in reality the median private college endowment is the same as the median public college endowment, about $36.7 million (FY 2019 IPEDS).

A variety of proposals on and off Capitol Hill suggest that federal legislation should either: (a) require mandatory endowment payouts to be used to lower tuition; or (b) impose a tax on the endowments of private colleges.

In fact, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) imposed a 1.4% excise tax on private college endowment investment returns, based on a formula of endowment assets of $500,000 per Full Time Equivalent (FTE) student. Using the most recent IPEDS data, this affects approximately 31 private colleges.  Public colleges were excluded from this new tax.  The tax will hit more and more private colleges over time because the formula was not indexed for inflation.

Endowments and Higher Education

Typically, endowments consist of hundreds – and, in many cases, thousands – of individual funds provided by charitable gifts, as well as some institutional funds that are invested to support an institution’s mission in perpetuity. A significant portion of an endowment is usually legally restricted by donors for specific educational or research purposes.

At private institutions, an average of 55 percent of endowment assets were restricted. While some may mistakenly believe institutions “hide” or “hoard” money in restricted accounts to avoid spending it, colleges and universities actually prefer unrestricted donations which provide them with the greatest flexibility to use funds that best achieve their mission over time.

In 2016, the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight took the lead in sending a questionnaire to 56 private colleges and universities with endowments over $1 billion.  The letter only went to private colleges; public colleges and universities with endowments greater than $1 billion were not contacted.  Each institution receiving the questionnaire successfully responded.  

The Endowment Tax

In September 2020, the IRS published guidance that clarified many of the confusing definitions and components of the tax.  While this guidance was helpful to the institutions paying the tax, there continues to be interest in Congress to repeal it or offset taxable amounts with amounts colleges provide in institutional aid.  However, most of these efforts have so far proven unsuccessful.

In the News

What you can do

  • Let your Members of Congress and their staffs know about the complexities of private college endowments. Educate legislators on their use, common restrictions, and average payout rates.
  • Urge your Members of Congress to cosponsor H.R. 2832, the Don't Tax Higher Education Act, sponsored by Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA).


  • National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO)-TIAA Study of Endowments (9/27/21)
  • American Council of Education, Testimony – House Ways and Means Committee (10/7/15)
  • Harvard University's Endowment webpage
  • Testimony submitted to the Senate Finance Committee on behalf of: 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 (10/10/07)

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