"Because that's where the money is."
-- Willie Sutton, when asked in 1934 why he robbed banks
WASHINGTON -- Washington is having a Willie Sutton Moment. Such moments occur when government, finding its revenue insufficient for its agenda, glimpses some money it does not control but would like to.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., recently convened a discussion of how colleges and universities should be spending their endowments. Grassley, who says more than 135 institutions each have endowments of more than $500 million, says perhaps they should be required to spend 5 percent of their endowments each year. Welch has introduced legislation to require that percentage be spent to reduce tuition and other student expenses.
This government reach for control of private resources comes even though last year colleges and universities spent, on average, 4.6 percent of their endowments. Furthermore, most endowments are too small to be a significant source of captured money.
Last fiscal year, Harvard's endowment, earning an 8.6 percent return, grew from $34.9 billion to $36.9 billion. Although less than the 23 percent return in the previous year, it was an excellent performance, considering the economic turbulence. But only 45 private institutions have endowments of more than $1 billion. Among the other 98 percent (1,565) of institutions, the median endowment is just $14 million. So government in a Willie Sutton mood would target the wealthiest institutions -- those that are the foundation of basic research that undergirds American prosperity, and that have the most generous financial aid programs for students.
Nowadays, much of politics consists of telling voters that the prices of many things they buy -- gasoline, health care, higher education -- are unreasonable. But demand for higher education has not declined even though its price at many institutions has risen even faster than the price of health care. Parents continue to pay rising tuition costs because they consider higher education a reasonable investment. They know that, today, wealth creation is driven by "human capital" -- trained minds -- and that "you earn what you learn."
Daniel Mark Fogel told the Grassley-Welch panel that at the University of Vermont, of which he is president, 60 percent of undergraduates, and 74 percent of this year's freshman class, are from out of the state. They pay the nation's second-highest non-resident tuition, which subsidizes the lower tuition paid by Vermonters, and helps offset declines in state appropriations.