State bill calls for taxing wealthy private colleges with endowments over $1B

Liam Rue, a UMass junior, speaks at a recent rally on the Amherst Common in support of proposed legislation that would impose a 2.5% tax on Massachusetts private college endowments over $1 billion.

Liam Rue, a UMass junior, speaks at a recent rally on the Amherst Common in support of proposed legislation that would impose a 2.5% tax on Massachusetts private college endowments over $1 billion. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Isabelle Anderson, an Amherst College junior and member of Young Democratic Socialist of America, speaks at a recent rally on the Amherst Common in support of proposed legislation that would impose a 2.5% tax on Massachusetts private college endowments over $1 billion.

Isabelle Anderson, an Amherst College junior and member of Young Democratic Socialist of America, speaks at a recent rally on the Amherst Common in support of proposed legislation that would impose a 2.5% tax on Massachusetts private college endowments over $1 billion. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By SOPHIE HAUCK

For the Gazette

Published: 11-27-2023 5:28 PM

AMHERST — A group of local college students, along with a handful of Massachusetts lawmakers, are advocating to tax nearly a dozen elite Massachusetts colleges and universities, whose multibillion-dollar endowments they say should fund early and higher education opportunities for students beyond these campuses.

Members of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM) are calling on state lawmakers to support legislation that would impose a 2.5% tax on the investment returns of Massachusetts colleges and universities whose endowments exceed $1 billion. Among those are Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges.

Students enrolled at those institutions attended a recent rally on the Amherst Common to voice their support for the bills (H.2824/S.1834), which would establish a trust fund to be used exclusively for the purposes of subsidizing the cost of higher education, early education and child care for lower- and middle-class residents of the commonwealth.

“There are millions of Massachusetts residents from kindergarten to college who could benefit from our enormous wealth in public schools that are currently underfunded and under-resourced,” said Isabelle Anderson, an Amherst College junior who leads her school’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America.

Eleven colleges and universities in Massachusetts would be impacted by the tax, according to bill sponsor Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, who testified at a recent hearing of the Joint Committee on Revenue in support of the legislation. She said these schools’ endowments total $95 billion combined, and taxing them could generate more than $2 billion in revenue for the state.

“Not every student has the opportunity to go to Harvard or MIT, but their endowments have the opportunity to make sure every single resident of Massachusetts can get a college degree,” Higgins said.

Income from the endowment funds need-blind financial aid and competitive salaries for faculty and staff, an Amherst College spokeswoman said.

“Any reduction to that income will require us to make difficult decisions that will inevitably impact our students, faculty and staff,” Caroline Hanna said in a statement regarding the 2023 legislation.

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There is a significant wealth disparity between public and private colleges in the state, advocates noted during the rally.

Nearly 74,000 students are enrolled across the five schools in the University of Massachusetts system, which had a $1.31 billion endowment at the end of fiscal 2023. By comparison, Amherst College serves 1,898 students, and its endowment totaled $3.34 billion at the end of the most recent fiscal year, according to its annual report.

Smith College has more than 2,100 undergraduates at its Northampton campus, and an endowment totaling $2.5 billion as of June 30.

Mount Holyoke has 2,200 undergraduates at its South Hadley campus, and an endowment totaling about $1 billion.

Redistributing some of Amherst’s endowment to UMass could benefit thousands of students, PHENOM members said.

Private schools whose endowments exceed a ratio of $500,000 per student already face a 1.4% federal excise tax on their investment returns. In 2018, Democrat gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez also proposed the state impose a 1.6% tax on endowments larger than $1 billion, and then-Amherst College President Biddy Martin criticized the proposal in a statement to the school newspaper, the Amherst Student.

“The proposed tax would make it impossible to do what Amherst is committed to doing — providing the best possible undergraduate education to talented students regardless of means,” Martin said. “The tax proposed by gubernatorial candidate Gonzalez would deal a blow not only to the commonwealth’s colleges and universities, but to those families least able to pay.”

Anderson noticed pushback against the rally on an anonymous messaging platform popular on campus called Fizz, where one user wrote that the legislation goes “against our own interests.”

“Not everything is about us,” she responded to online opponents during the rally. “I encourage our campus population to push our institution to provide more for our needs, while also contributing to an important cause much greater than ourselves.”