Universities’ endowment management practices have come under scrutiny by politicians and commentators who note that universities are tax-exempt, and do not want taxpayers subsidizing institutions only to have them accumulate wealth without advancing the public good. Defenders of university endowment policies argue that, to the contrary, managers do not hoard endowment wealth for its own sake, but rather use endowments to smooth university spending over time. A critical question in this context is how the amounts that universities pay out from their endowments respond to shocks to the values of their endowments. Specifically, if universities reduce payouts in response to negative shocks more than they increase payouts in response to positive shocks, then their behavior is consistent with the notion that endowment managers care more about maintaining the value of their endowments than smoothing expenditures. We investigate this issue using panel data on the payout behavior of over 700 universities during the period 1987 to 2009, and find that payouts are affected symmetrically by positive and negative shocks. While we make no attempt to argue that current payout policies are optimal for universities or for society, our findings do indicate that fears that universities are abusing their tax-exempt status by hoarding their endowments may be misplaced.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- University endowments
- endowment hoarding
- higher education finance