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Looking at Ivy League Tax Returns

The Government Shutdown of October, 2013 has left many of us in the cold: No access to much of the data we use from places like NCES, or IPEDS, or Data.gov. As I wrote in the post below about the age distribution of college students, Archive.org can get you some of the information you want, provided it's in existing tables or spreadsheets on government websites. But you still can't get to the databases that generate custom reports.

One alternative where you can go looking is Guidestar. From there, I downloaded the FY 2011 Tax Returns (IRS Form 990) for all eight of the Ivy League institutions, and manually put the data into a database. While the most interesting stories are not always on the front page of the return, you can look at the high-level breakouts of revenue sources and allocation of expenses.

On this visualization there are three tabs across the top: The first is the total revenue (orange bar) and expenses for FY 2010 and FY 2011. Beneath that is the difference: Think of it as profit and loss. The center tab is the breakout of revenues; at the top is the total amounts, and the bottom is the same data shown as percents of total, for comparison. And finally, the far right tab shows two views of expenses: Totals and percent of total.

It's fair to say that sometimes this data can be misleading: Money comes in during one fiscal year and is spent in the next, or vice versa. But what's interesting to me is the magnitude of the results, compared to many universities: Columbia's one-year surplus--just the surplus--could run the university where I work for about two years.


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