Yesterday The New York Times had two articles that left me thinking about university endowments. One discussed the increased Congressional pressure on charitable institutions to spend down their endowments; the other noted the soaring salaries of college presidents. Combined, the articles highlight the need to challenge conventional thinking about what constitutes a strong endowment.
The Times reports that in the last 10 years, the amount of assets held by non-profits has nearly doubled, to $2.5 trillion by the end of 2005. Educational institutions held almost $600 billion. (If nothing else, employees deciding whether to enroll in TIAA-CREF should take note of what compounding interest and tax-free gains can yield!) Private foundations are required to spend 5% of their assets each year; educational institutions are not subject to even this minimal requirement.
Grinnell College, with 1500 students and an endowment of over $1 billion, was highlighted in the Times article. Russell Osgood, Grinnell’s president, points out that Grinnell gave about $1 million more in financial aid than it received in revenue from tuition and fees. He also says,“We’re here to ensure the long-term health and function of Grinnell College. That’s our sole objective.” But the Times does not quote Osgood as explaining why more than $1 billion is necessary to protect a small liberal arts college against an economic downturn. Rather, Osgood says:
Society at large benefits from those monies being invested in our economy. . . . The United States has a problem with its rate of savings, and one of the few bright spots are colleges and universities, which are two of the largest contributors to the national rate of savings. Anyone thinking about reducing endowments should think long and hard about what that might do to the overall ability to generate jobs and fund good ideas.
Maybe, although no-one is suggesting that universities empty their coffers. And the national savings rate is what not alumni were thinking about when they wrote checks to their alma mater, or what Congress was considering when it extended favorable tax treatment to educational institutions and their donors.