The federal government doesn't seem to be in a very good position to criticize the way university endowment associations support higher education.
Some members of Congress are considering a law that would require endowment associations to expend a certain percentage of their assets each year. The goal, they say, is to address rising tuition costs at universities across the nation.
Lawmakers apparently are getting a lot of complaints from their constituents about high tuition costs and, in classic form, have decided to pass the buck to someone else. Rather than look at increased state and federal support for higher education, they are pointing the finger at the private endowments that support universities.
The measure might focus on private universities with huge endowments, but it also could hit public universities, like Kansas University, whose endowments have topped $1 billion. For public universities, endowments have been a lifeline in recent years as the percentage of their budgets funded by the state has plummeted.
These endowments are successful because they are managed for long-term stability. They pay for such things as endowed professorships year in and year out regardless of the annual return on their investments. Endowment officials know there will be lean years, so they plan ahead and make sure they have enough cushion to meet their obligations.
Come to think of it, considering the current federal budget deficit, members of Congress might learn a thing or two from university endowment associations.
Rising tuition is a great concern in this country, but Congress' complaints about endowment funds might speak more loudly if those funds were handling government money rather than private funds. Endowment funds have been given to universities by generous donors who often want their money to address a specific need. It could be a building or a professorship, but, in many cases, that need is to provide scholarships for worthy students. In that way, endowment associations and their donors already are addressing the rising cost of tuition.
There is little question that tuition at some universities, especially some of the nation's elite institutions, is out of reach for many students. The fact that tuition for Kansas students at KU has more than doubled in the last decade should be of no small concern to our state leaders. But attacking, and perhaps damaging, private endowments that make up for what government sources are unwilling or unable to supply, is an insulting and dangerous approach.