A generation ago, colleges and universities concentrated their investments in bonds – safe, conservative investments with fixed returns.
Not so today. Colleges put more of their endowment money into stocks as well as into new kinds of investments.
The point, said Marcus Buckley, vice president of finance and administration at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, is to consider the endowment as a perpetual investment. “What we're doing, we hope, will have an impact on the College of St. Rose 100 years from now,” he said.
Colleges with bigger endowments were the leaders in investments such as real estate investment trusts and hedge funds.
Smaller schools are beginning to follow suit. Siena College in Loudonville has begun investing in some of those non-traditional investments, an approach the college's finance officer described as progressive while limiting risk.
“When you have that scale working for you, you're in a better position to invest in non-traditional investments,” said Paul Stec, vice president of finance and administration at Siena.
Well-invested endowments generate money, and money enables schools to do all sorts of things, from providing scholarships to their students to paying their professors more and buying better equipment for science labs.
That helps colleges remain competitive, increasing their ability to attract good students and good teachers to their campuses.
Six New York state-based colleges each had more than $1 billion in endowment funds last year, according to a survey of 746 schools by the National Association of College and University Business Officers in conjunction with TIAA-CREF, a national financial services organization.
Columbia University in New York City led the New York contingent, ranked eighth in the nation with a $5.1 billion endowment, a 15.5 percent increase over 2004.
Columbia was followed by Cornell University ($3.7 billion), Rockefeller University ($1.5 billion), New York University ($1.5 billion), the University of Rochester ($1.3 billion) and Yeshiva University ($1.1 billion).
But the size of an endowment, and how it's used, can also be used to measure a school's overall financial performance by credit rating agencies and bond insurers. Buckley, of St. Rose, noted that his school benefits, in that regard, because its endowment money goes strictly to scholarships, not to the college's regular operating expenses. Last year, about $600,000 in endowment money went to scholarships at St. Rose.
Scholarships are a common use of endowment money, but many colleges make other uses of the revenue as well.
“The power [of an endowment] is being able to count on a bedrock of money you can draw on every single year,” said Michael Luck, vice president of philanthropy and alumni affairs at the State University of New York.
At Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, endowment dollars support the overall mission of the college, including specific dollars targeted to student financial aid and some faculty salaries. In some cases, the revenue can also be used for special projects, like equipping special biology labs.
With an endowment of $196 million, Skidmore is ranked 220 th in the national survey. There are 2,347 full-time undergraduate students on campus at Skidmore.
“We're always trying to grow our endowment, even though we're pleased with the amount of money we have, and by our gifts and investment performance,” said Michael West, Skidmore College's treasurer and vice president of business affairs.
Skidmore's total, he noted, is at the low end compared to similar colleges like Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., with a $721 million endowment in 2005.
Union College in Schenectady, with the second-largest ($291 million) endowment in the region, has added alternative investments to its endowment portfolio in the last couple of years, according to Diane Blake, vice president of finance and administration.
The strategy, however, is also designed to protect the investment for the long term while sustaining growth. Endowment money provides about 13 percent of the college's revenue.
Schools have specific formulas and policies that govern how much of their endowment they use each year. Under current industry standards, college investment officers aim to increase their endowments by 9 percent a year – enough to keep pace with inflation and still yield revenue.
The desire for larger endowments is nearly universal.
“It's nowhere near as large as we'd like it,” said Union's Blake. As of Dec. 31, the Union endowment value had grown to $300 million.
The bigger the endowment, the more schools can do to fulfill their basic educational mission, officials say. Schools like Harvard with the mega-endowments, for example, are able to offer students full scholarships. For schools with smaller endowments, those scholarships are more likely discounts against tuition, Buckley said.
Most colleges saw the value of their endowments rise in the late 1990s as the stock market skyrocketed. And when the market fell, so too did those values.
“The challenge there was to remind yourselves that the salad days weren't going to be there forever,” Stec said.