Title media by
Livia Lemgruber

Northeastern University is a private nonprofit research institution, which by definition means that it engages in research and is not a subsidiary of an association or corporation organized to make a profit. The nonprofit label makes the university’s pursuit of educational growth seem even more noble. But how can a school that took in $1.9 billion in revenue in 2020, on top of a billion-dollar endowment, really be a nonprofit?

Northeastern’s nonprofit status is significant because it exempts the university from paying any federal income tax on all revenue it earns each year. This is the personal equivalent to cashing a paycheck without any deductions (Social Security, etc.), except Northeastern’s paycheck is $1.9 billion. Despite Northeastern’s ability to claim tax deductions for staff compensation, maintenance and repair costs, and advertising and market, amongst other categories, the university is still asking students to pay $56,000 a year in tuition (not including room, board, and fees). 

A 2013 post from the Academic Dean at Northeastern’s Seattle campus urges students to compare for-profit and nonprofit institutions when choosing a place to do their graduate research.

The post leaves little doubt about the author’s opinions about which type of institution is better: nonprofit. 

Of the almost 4,000 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the US, a little more than 1,600 of them are listed as nonprofits. Nonprofits often provide an institution with a positive connotation because charities are also often categorized as nonprofits.  In order to receive tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3) (nonprofit organization) in the U.S., the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) states that the purpose of an organization must be “charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals.” It is also required that “none of [an organization’s] earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual.” This means that a nonprofit organization’s earnings cannot be affected by or determined by an individual’s private interests. 

Universities like Northeastern don’t have conventional shareholders, since they aren’t structured like corporations with shares of capital that individuals or other corporations can own. However, they do have Boards of Trustees, who influence the university’s budget and develop the school’s mission, outline the school’s objectives, and establish school policies. President Joseph E. Aoun is both the president of the university and a Board of Trustees member, both the wolf and the shepherd of the Northeastern flock. He works closely with the Board of Trustees and the comptroller to prepare the annual budget, which coincidentally includes his salary.

In 2020, President Aoun took home a salary of $1.338 million. Other administrative officers have similarly high salaries: Diane MacGillivray, the Senior Vice President of University Advancement, made a little over $1 million, and 20 other deans, provosts, coaches, and professors made six-figure salaries, most exceeding $500,000 a year (find a full list here). 

Though Trustees are listed on the same document, their “reportable compensation” totals to $0, so they are not officially compensated for their work. Several of the Trustees are retired, but most have other jobs. Richard A. D'Amore, the Chair of the Board of Trustees at Northeastern is a partner at North Bridge Venture Partners, a venture capital firm. Other Trustees include Sir Lucian Grainge, Chair and CEO at Universal Music Group; Frances N. Janis, Senior Partner at Pomona Capital; and Subodh Chanrai, Group Executive Chairman at Chanrai Summit Group.

Northeastern's net worth was more than $2.2 billion in 2020. Virtually none of this money has been used for affordable housing and meal plans. (Photographed by Garrett Diegnan)

In 2020, Northeastern’s net assets were more than $2.2 billion. The majority of the $1.9 billion total revenue comes from “Program Services,” which includes tuition, room, board, fees, and parking. At $309 million, the second highest source of revenue was “contributions” from fundraising, government grants, noncash contributions, and all other contributions, gifts, and grants.

Northeastern continues to pay its exorbitant administrative salaries while its students struggle to house and feed themselves. It spent $23,249,287 on meal plans and food expenses in 2020 but also reported a revenue of $2,203,647 for “Food Services”. Northeastern also continues to funnel money into expensive housing projects that its students cannot afford to live in. The university is planning on building yet another luxury dorm called Lightview 2, after the existing Lightview on Columbus Ave: proposed rent at this dorm starts at $1,374 per month.

The controversy over the construction of Lightview 2 deepened as Roxbury residents protested the use of land that could be home to affordable housing. Boston Housing Authority lists many such development projects where families can live if they’re eligible for Section 8 housing vouchers. The construction of a building like Lightview 2 would contribute to further gentrification of the Roxbury area, which local activists have been trying to prevent. YDSA Northeastern and the Boston Socialist Alternative have spoken against the university’s gentrification of Roxbury, stating simply that students do not need luxury dorms

A group of Black and Latino investors and Roxbury-based nonprofits called Columbia Plaza Associates (CPA) are suing Northeastern over this construction project. Their argument is that a 1980s deal between Roxbury and the city of Boston, intended to spur Black and Latino economic growth in the neighborhood, still applies to the land today. This would mean that Northeastern is breaching this agreement, and must work with CPA if they insist on building on the land. (Read more about Parcel 18 here.)

Northeastern claims that students will move into Lightview 2 (if they’re somehow able to afford it) and move out of the housing along Fenway, freeing up more affordable housing for the community at large. However, companies like Scape, a London-based student housing developer, are already poised to scoop up these properties as part of their global expansion after Northeastern has vacated them. Scape will then surely turn them into more luxury apartments that no one wants nor can afford.

Given the university’s high costs of tuition, meal, and housing plans, countless Northeastern students struggle with food and housing insecurity. 26% of Northeastern students have stated that they suffer from food insecurity. Northeastern requires that all freshmen enroll in a meal plan, and many residence halls require a student to have a meal plan (12, 17, or unlimited meals a week) in order to be eligible to live there. Most students are automatically assigned the 17-meal-a-week-plan which costs a whopping $7,910 per academic year on top of all other tuition and housing fees. (It is worth noting that it was very difficult to find a list of Northeastern’s meal plan rates, though it was frequently mentioned that a meal plan was required on the residential life and meal plan web pages.) 

ISEC 2 under construction. (Photographed by Garrett Diegnan)

Though Northeastern may claim its nonprofit status on tax forms, the university would rather find tax loopholes than help its hungry and houseless students. If the university truly wishes to be a benefit to its community and a nurturing place for people to pursue their education, it needs to do better. Student organizations like Northeastern Mutual Aid, while well-meaning and noble, should not have to bear the brunt of the difficulties faced by students that our university ignores and victimizes.  Northeastern needs to guarantee a meal plan and housing for all of its students, regardless of their ability to pay. 

It’s clear that the university has the money to fund such programs: Northeastern spent billions upon buildings such as the ISECs and the Lightviews. (the original Lightview cost $153.4 million to build). In an institution that is meant to nurture and uplift individuals, no student should go hungry, houseless, or broke. Higher education is difficult enough without having to worry about food or a roof over one’s head. Northeastern’s yearly revenue shows that it has the means to provide these basic necessities for its students. So why isn’t it?