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U. to comply with Senate request for endowment data

Brown plans to comply with a request from leaders of the Senate Finance Committee for detailed information on its endowment, tuition and financial aid policies, a University spokesman said Tuesday.

The request came in a letter mailed Jan. 24 from Senators Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to the nation's 136 wealthiest colleges and universities. Brown ranks 26th on that list. The non-binding request seeks information ranging from basic enrollment and tuition figures to more complex data on endowment restrictions, payouts and investment strategies. Schools were given 30 days to respond.

"We will be responding in the time period," said Tim Leshan, director of government relations and community affairs. But at this early stage the details of the University's response are difficult to predict, and some data may not be readily available to officials, he added.

The request reflects the committee's concern that the cost of college education is outpacing inflation, especially in a period of "explosive college endowment growth," according to a press release accompanying the letter.

Brown's endowment stood at nearly $2.8 billion in 2007. That figure was up more than 20 percent from 2006, due to the strength of investment returns and the ongoing $1.4-billion Campaign for Academic Enrichment.

"We need to engage America's colleges and universities to come together to address the fact that college tuition for young Americans and their families is increasing at a faster rate than inflation," said Baucus, the committee's chairman, in its press release. "The questions we put forward in this letter will help Congress better understand how colleges use their endowments to make certain that talented young folks in Montana and across the country aren't left out of the classroom."

"We're giving well-funded colleges a chance to describe what they're doing to help students," Grassley, the committee's ranking Republican, added in the statement. "More information will help Congress make informed decisions about a potential pay-out requirement and allow universities to show what they can accomplish on their own initiative."

That comment could stoke unease among university officials, as Grassley has previously suggested that he might promote legislation to require colleges and universities to spend at least five percent of their endowments each year, as many other non-profit foundations already must. Such a measure would be intended to reduce students' tuition burdens.

Most of the country's wealthiest universities spend closer to four percent in any given year, the Chronicle reported Nov. 2. Brown's annual payout is also usually about four percent, The Herald reported in an Oct. 17 article.

Brown opposes any such requirement, Leshan said, echoing a position that other Ivy League schools have taken.

"That's been an issue that's been out there and it's something we're concerned about," he said. But, he added, the letter doesn't necessarily portend impending restrictions.

"This is really viewed as a request for information. It's not an investigation," Leshan said. "It's an opportunity for universities like Brown to tell the story of endowments and why they're important and why they benefit higher education a great deal, especially institutions like Brown."

A Baucus aide reached at the committee's Washington, D.C., office declined to comment on how senators planned to use the data. "At this point we're just collecting information, and that's as much as I can tell you," the aide said.

"There is much that can be accomplished by colleges and universities, particularly those with significant endowments, to control costs and provide real relief for students from low- and middle-income families," the senators told schools in the letter. In the past year, Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania and several other schools have announced major expansions of their financial aid programs for students in those income brackets, actions Baucus and Grassley alluded to as praiseworthy in the letter.

"This is a very positive trend that we'd like to see continue," the senators wrote.

That exhortation has particular relevance for Brown, which has yet to follow suit with a financial aid expansion of its own. The question of aid spending will be taken up by the Corporation, the University's highest governing body, at its February meeting, The Herald reported Monday.

Elizabeth Huidekoper, executive vice president for finance and administration, did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment for this article, and Director of Financial Aid James Tilton declined to comment on the letter.

The letter has "two sides," said Rae Goldsmith, vice president of communications and marketing for the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, a professional organization for education fundraisers.

"On the one hand, the letter gives institutions the opportunity to help people better understand what endowments are and what their true value and function to the university are," she said. "What will be problematic for institutions is that they may not record or keep the data in the manner that it's requested."

The letter also is unclear as to why the information is being gathered, she said. "In some ways it is asking institutions to provide information without them understanding what the question is."


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