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How Harvard University Got Rich

And why we should take that money back

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Harvard’s endowment is a whopping $51 billion. That’s larger than the GDP of more than 120 nations — and all the money is tax free.

Taxing just 1% of Harvard’s endowment could make community college free for everyone in Massachusetts. We spoke to some lawmakers who want to do just that and dug into the history of how Harvard, and the rest of the Ivy League, got so rich.

What’s happening?

A financial endowment is essentially an investment portfolio designed to grow a pool of money for an organization. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has the largest endowment in America at $67.2 Billion.

In 1978, Harvard University had a $1.4 billion endowment and admitted 2,200 incoming students.

In 2023, the endowment sits at $50.7 billion—with 1,942 students admitted. That’s a 3,521% increase to their endowment and a 12% decrease to their admissions. And the same is true for the rest of Ivy League.

But it’s not true for public universities, which have seen decreased state funding over the same time period while increasing their enrollment numbers. Public universities enroll way more low-income students too. The University of California, Berkeley, enrolls more low-income students than the entire Ivy League combined.

In the wake of Affirmative Action being struck down, there seem to be two tracks of organizing for equity in higher education. One way is making admissions to very elite institutions fairer by removing legacy admissions, something the Department of Education is also investigating.

But just ending legacy admissions at elite institutions, which only benefit a very small percentage of Americans, isn’t enough to structurally reform higher education.

Win-win

Two Massachusetts Democrats want to go a step further. Rep. Simon Cataldo and Senator Pavel Payano are two state legislators who introduced a bill a couple months ago that would tax Harvard.

The bill is focused on three admissions policies: binding decision, legacy preference, and donor preference. Rather than banning these practices, the government would instead take a “public service fee” from these highly selective, elite schools with large endowments. That fee would equate to a small percentage of the endowment. Cataldo called that a win-win.

“Either they stop using practices that hurt working class people, or they pay a public service fee that goes into a trust fund for community colleges in the Commonwealth,” he said.

Now imagine what we could do if we taxed all elite universities in America. States across the country have proposed legislation that would do that. All of the Ivy League’s endowments added up are more than twice the cost of making community college free for everyone in America.

Harvard and other Ivies could be building a second or third campus. They could quadruple their enrollment if they wanted to.

But they won’t because their prestige is built on excluding millions of working class Americans. That’s not going to change unless we get serious about taking on their endowments.

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