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Elite colleges with fat endowments are on the defensive as the GOP drags them into a D.C. tax fight

Harvard University Gate
Harvard University has an endowment of more than $36 billion. –Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

WASHINGTON — America’s elite private colleges would rather talk about anything other than their own vast wealth, but Republicans have put the institutions they have long criticized as liberal bastions on the defensive by dragging them into Washington’s messy tax fight.

Tax overhauls drafted in the House and Senate have zeroed in on the billions of dollars that top private schools have tucked away in endowments. The lawmakers want to impose a new 1.4 percent tax on annual income spun off by these vast funds, limiting the tax to the approximately 60 schools where the endowments are worth more than $250,000 per full-time student.

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That has thrust the nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning — including Harvard, Dartmouth, and a dozen other New England schools — squarely into an intense lobbying battle over money.