American universities are the richest they’ve ever been, with more schools than ever sitting on endowments valued at $1 billion.

From 2009 to 2016, the number of institutions hitting the 10-figure mark increased from 55 to as many as 90. As the year ends, the bull market promises to deliver additional billion-dollar endowments, given that investment returns averaged 13.2 percent for the year ended June 30. Ivy League stalwarts such as Dartmouth College and Cornell University are being joined by newcomers including the University of Arkansas and Virginia Tech. Some of these recent arrivals are already focused on bigger numbers in the years to come.

So with all this money sloshing around, some are wondering if students facing a future filled with debt should be getting more help. In particular, consumer advocates and politicians have asked why more endowment money isn’t going toward making college more affordable. Hearings were held in 2016 on Capitol Hill as endowment values hit record levels, and inquiries were sent to the richest 56 private colleges—those with funds over the magic $1 billion mark. More than a year later, the Republican-controlled Congress has passed a tax bill that includes a new levy on endowment investment gains.

Universities contend that, while much of their endowment wealth is earmarked by donors, they do use those funds to provide discounted tuition to low- and middle-income families. Ivy League schools in particular point to statistics showing high levels of financial aid and relatively low levels of debt among their students. The new tax will damage that effort, wrote John Coatsworth, a provost at Columbia University in New York, and Lee Goldman, chief executive of its medical center.

“Such a tax on endowment earnings would reduce resources available for student financial aid, faculty salaries and other critical needs,” they warned in a joint letter to the Ivy League school’s community. Arguing against the tax may be missing the point when it comes to defending fat endowments, however. With parents these days starting college funds before kindergarten even starts, the optics of a $1 billion endowment run by high-paid administrators aren’t favorable for higher education. “They’re under a pretty intense amount of pressure, and they haven’t done a lot to get in front of it,” said Andy Rotherham, co-founder and partner of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit that awards grants to improve education at all levels. “They don’t generate a lot of sympathy.”

Stellar endowment performance for the year ending in June was led by schools heavily invested in stocks. Institutions with complex investment strategies such as Yale University, which puts more than half of its assets in alternatives such as private equity and hedge funds, generally did poorer. Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at the Education Trust, said most endowment wealth is concentrated in just a few schools. Some 3 percent of colleges hold 75 percent of all endowment wealth, she said, while half of all colleges with endowments above $500 million come up short in enrolling first-time Pell Grant recipients, a need-based grant.

“These wealthy institutions need to enroll and support many more of the students who face the greatest barriers,” she said.

Meanwhile, tuition at private non-profit universities this academic year was more than double what it was 30 years ago, according to the College Board, adjusting for inflation. And in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, 58 college presidents were being paid more than $1 million. The people who run the endowments are also cashing in. In 2015, Stephen Blyth, then chief executive of Harvard University’s endowment, was making $15 million, according to tax filings. Blyth didn’t return a request for comment. Harvard declined to comment.

“It certainly raises eyebrows,” said Dan Bauman, a data reporter with the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Experts estimate there’s roughly $1.3 trillion of student debt outstanding, more than triple what was owed a decade ago, according to New York Fed data. The burden of repaying it, which exceeds credit card balances and auto loans, has been blamed for broad social and economic malaise, including delayed marriages and homebuying. It also disproportionately impacts minorities. 

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