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Endowments and Foundations

Americans split over whether school funds should be taxed

Americans are divided over whether U.S. college endowments should have to pay a new federal tax, according to a national survey on higher education.

Fifty percent of respondents sided with the wealthy private schools while 43% agreed the tax should be levied, and 7% were unsure, according to data published Monday by Boston public media producer WGBH News, which surveyed about 1,000 adults ages 18 to 65.

As the price of college has increased more than inflation over decades, and student debt has surpassed $1.5 trillion, Americans have questioned the value of higher education. Yet more than two-thirds in the poll said they believe colleges and universities have a positive impact on society.

"We decided it was critically important to our audience to take the country's pulse on some fundamental questions about higher education, including whether or not Americans still value a college degree," said Ken Cooper, who oversaw the project for WGBH News.

The tax bill passed last December added a new levy on college endowments, which schools are actively working to repeal.

The 1.4% tax on net investment gains of private university endowments worth more than $500,000 per student affects about 30 schools. The biggest share of schools are in Massachusetts, about 20%, including Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Amherst College.

Fifty-four percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 believe endowments should be taxed while the majority of those over 30 think they should be tax-free. The survey also found that 46% of Republicans and 49% of independents favor the tax compared with 38% of Democrats.

The poll also found that a majority of respondents support a racially and ethnically diverse student body, yet overwhelmingly oppose the use of race as a factor in college admissions.

The poll was conducted Aug. 21 to 25 by Abt Associates, which provides research and consulting services in areas including education, health, environment and social policy. Clients range from U.S. federal government agencies to universities, some of which would pay the tax.