Unreported unrelated business income in higher education was found in almost every case examined by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
“The audits identified some significant compliance issues at the colleges and universities examined,” said Lois Lerner, director, Exempt Organizations division of the IRS. “Because these issues may well be present elsewhere across the tax-exempt sector, all exempt organizations need to be aware of the importance of accurately reporting unrelated business income and providing appropriate executive compensation.”
This is part of the multi-year project on tax-exempt colleges and universities. The Colleges and Universities Compliance Project was launched in 2008 with the distribution of detailed questionnaires to 400 randomly-selected colleges and universities. The IRS selected 34 of the 400 for examination because their questionnaire responses and Form 990 reporting indicated potential noncompliance in the areas of unrelated business income and executive compensation.
Unrelated business income (UBI) is the income from a trade or business regularly conducted by an exempt organization and not substantially related to its exempt purpose. Unrelated business taxable income is the UBI that is taxable after deducting expenses directly connected to the trade or business. Because UBTI is calculated by totaling the UBI from all activities and subtracting the total allowable deductions, losses from one activity can offset profits from another. Examinations have resulted in:
- Increases to UBTI for 90 percent of colleges and universities examined totaling about $90 million;
- More than 180 changes to the amounts of UBTI reported by colleges and universities on Form 990-T; and
- Disallowance of more than $170 million in losses and Net Operating Losses (NOLs, i.e., losses reported in one year that are used to offset profits in other years), which could amount to more than $60 million in assessed taxes.
The primary reasons for increases to UBTI in the completed exams were:
- Disallowing expenses that were not connected to unrelated business activities.
The IRS found that examined colleges and universities were reporting certain losses as connected to unrelated business activities when they were not. The misreporting occurred in two ways:
1. Lack of profit motive: The IRS found that organizations were claiming losses from activities that did not qualify as a trade or business. Nearly 70 percent of examined colleges and universities reported losses from activities for which expenses had consistently exceeded UBI for many years. UBI must be generated by a trade or business.
An activity qualifies as a trade or business only if, among other things, the taxpayer engaged in the activity with the intent to make a profit. A pattern of recurring losses indicates a lack of profit motive. The IRS disallowed reporting of activities for which the taxpayer failed to show a profit motive. Those losses no longer offset profits from other activities in the current year or in future years, with more than $150 million of NOLs disallowed.
2. Improper expense allocation: The IRS also found that on nearly 60 percent of the Form 990-Ts examined, colleges and universities had misallocated expenses to offset UBI for specific activities. Organizations may allocate expenses that are used to carry on both exempt and unrelated business activities, but they must do so on a reasonable basis and the expenses offsetting UBI must be directly connected to the UBI activities. In many cases, the IRS found that claimed expenses, which generated losses, were not connected to the unrelated business activity.
The IRS checked the calculations for all NOLs reported on returns under exam and found that NOLs were either improperly calculated or unsubstantiated on more than a third of returns. As a result, the IRS disallowed nearly $19 million in NOLs.
The IRS also determined that nearly 40 percent of colleges and universities examined had misclassified certain activities as exempt or otherwise not reportable on Form 990-T. Fewer than 20 percent of these activities generated a loss. The examinations resulted in the reclassification of nearly $4 million in income as unrelated, subjecting those activities to tax.
Examinations resulted in more than 180 changes to UBTI reported for specific activities by colleges and universities. More than 30 different activities were connected to the changes. The majority of these adjustments came from the following activities: Fitness, recreation centers and sports camps; advertising; facility rentals; arenas; and, golf.