IRS finds widespread noncompliance by colleges and universities

The IRS published its final report concerning its Colleges and Universities Compliance Project, finding compliance issues related to unrelated business taxable income (UBTI) and compensation practices. The IRS conducted the study to find out why colleges and universities had so much unrelated business activity but owed so little tax and to examine their compensation practices. The IRS examined tax returns from 34 colleges and universities it selected from among 400 it surveyed by questionnaire. The examined schools were divided almost evenly between private and public institutions, with about two-thirds reporting enrollments greater than 15,000 students.

Unrelated business taxable income. An exempt organization, including exempt colleges and universities, must pay tax on income from an unrelated trade or business, defined as an activity not substantially related to the accomplishment of the organization’s exempt purposes, even if the income from the business is used to support those purposes. Losses from one activity can offset income from another; however, continuing losses can indicate a lack of profit motive, which would disqualify the activity’s losses from the netting process.

The IRS found that UBTI was underreported at 90% of the institutions examined, with a total understatement of more than $90 million from 30 unrelated activities. The majority of the activities with unreported UBTI were fitness and recreation centers, sports camps, advertising, facility rentals, arenas, and golf courses. Nearly half of the institutions had adjustments to UBTI from advertising and/or facility rentals, and about one-third had adjustments from fitness and recreation centers and sports camps, arenas, and/or golf courses. The report identified four primary reasons for understated UBTI: (1) lack of profit motive, (2) improper expense allocation, (3) misclassification of certain activities as exempt, and (4) miscalculated or unsubstantiated net operating losses.

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