In a scathing twitter storm, Malcolm Gladwell renewed public interest in how college endowments work and just how vast they are. In 2015, Gladwell publicly responded to news that Yale had received even more funds to add to its bloated endowment by firing off tweet after tweet on the inequality of endowments. In 2016, he dedicated three of the ten episodes in his podcast Revisionist History to the unbalanced scales in the world of higher education, one of which specifically addressed where donations and endowments do the most good (spoiler alert: money donated to public or community colleges provides more opportunity to underprivileged individuals than does money donated to Ivy league schools).
In the meantime, though, schools with endowments that are larger than the GDP of some caribbean and south American countries face increasing pressure to manage them well, as some major investors have redirected funds to other locations and the costs of running an institute of higher learning balloon.
Put most simply, endowments are large investments donated to universities with strict guidelines as to how much can be spent where. As stated in Investopedia, “The sole intention of the endowment is to invest it, so that the total asset value will yield an inflation-adjusted principal amount, along with additional income for further investments and supplementary expenditures.” When working properly, the original money deposited in the endowment is little touched and the school skims the earnings of the investment off the top. Many schools use their endowments to fund faculty salaries, student scholarships, and other projects. As institutions of higher learning are nonprofits, none of the money is taxed along the way from the donor or the school itself, making endowments extremely valuable assets to schools.
Today, schools are having trouble balancing what the spend against what their endowments bring in. As of late, returns on investments are averaging smaller amounts than before. In some cases, the values of the endowments are falling by up to 2.5%.Despite one of the worst years for endowments since the great recession, some colleges continue to dig into their endowments to fund their scholarships and pay their salaries.
In an attempt to outsmart the room, Harvard decided to change its investment model to save on fees. Like many of its Ivy League contemporaries, Harvard invests much of its $37.5 billion endowment in hedge funds, but such investments can result in upwards of $100 million in fees. Thus, Harvard started to manage its hedge funds internally. Unfortunately, the plan hasn’t worked out so well, as Bloomberg reported that Harvard has continued to fall behind Yale and Columbia, and as of 2017, all hedge fund managing will be done externally
Houghton college, though, despite its tiny endowment compared to Harvard’s, managed to post 11.85% positive returns on its investment, which it attributed to its increased allocations to passive investments. Steadier and less costly, passive investing is a long-term game that makes money by avoiding the fees that accompany frequent trading.
The science of managing a college endowment is ever-changing and at the whimsy of the economy, the market, and a laundry list of other variables, but the basic math is simple: money in has to exceed money out. Colleges are learning once again that there’s no way around this rule, and as the economy continues to fluctuate, new strategies to make that math work will be put to the test.