IRS Seeks Financial Data for Inquiry

The Internal Revenue Service will request new financial data from 400 colleges and universities—potentially including Harvard—in an effort to further study the financial practices of the tax-exempt schools, the agency announced this week.

The 33-page questionnaire—which an IRS announcement said will be sent out in the next few days—delves into endowment investments, executive compensation, and income from unrelated businesses, such as sporting events.

The survey could eventually give rise to a more rigorous and specialized tax filing for colleges and institutions, a requirement the IRS recently created for hospitals after commissioning a similar compliance survey in 2006.

Harvard Director of Federal Relations Suzanne Day said she did not yet know whether Harvard was one of the schools chosen, but that she had been told colleges and universities would have 90 days to respond after receiving the form.

The IRS did not respond to questions about the form yesterday.

The questionnaire follows months of congressional scrutiny into how college and universities spend their endowments, with some lawmakers calling for more money to go toward financial aid.

Senator Charles E. Grassley—Capitol Hill’s most vocal critic of university endowment spending—has repeatedly raised the possibility of requiring college and university endowments to pay out at least 5 percent annually, a standard that now applies to public charities.

Grassley toned down his criticism of endowment use in a panel last month, instead calling for a specialized tax filing for colleges and universities.

In a statement Wednesday, Grassley praised the compliance questionnaires as imperative to ensuring accountability in university finances.

“This questionnaire is overdue. Colleges and universities should be much more transparent about their activities, just as tax-exempt hospitals are being asked to do,” Grassley said. “They need to show they’re making good use of the tax exemption and other federal subsidies they receive.”

Grassley continued to call for a specialized form in the statement and his spokeswoman, Jill Gerber, said the Iowa senator has also still not ruled out the possibility of trying to mandate a 5-percent level of endowment payout.

Day said in an interview yesterday that congressional attitudes toward endowments have shifted since Grassley first floated the idea of payout legislation.

“I think on the Hill there’s a much better understanding about how endowments are about institutional resources dedicated to our research and educational mission,” she said. “They’re not just pots of money that sit around.”

If Harvard gets the IRS questionnaire, it won’t be the first time this year the University has had to disclose additional financial data to the federal government.

Grassley and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus sent their own questionnaires in January to the 136 wealthiest colleges and universities in the country.

Those largely open-ended questions elicited responses that varied widely in format—even from similar institutions—making it difficult for the finance committee to draw “intelligent conclusions,” Gerber said.

“It’s not a simple task at all. It’s not as simple as just putting numbers in a database,” she said in an interview yesterday. “The answers are complex and they do take some careful analysis.”

Gerber added that the committee staff is now in the middle of analyzing the responses—which were received early last spring—and said they will likely not finish until early next year.

The IRS questionnaire is far more specific about information solicited. The IRS plans to report on findings from the questionnaires in 2009, according to their statement.

—Staff writer Clifford M. Marks can be reached at cmarks@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Nathan C. Strauss can be reached at strauss@fas.harvard.edu.