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An endowment is the total investments held by an institution which it is not at liberty to spend. Non-profit or charitable institutions receive gifts. In some years, an institution may receive more money than it spends. In general, when an institution saves money, it is free to spend it later for any purpose consistent with the mission of that institution. However, when a gift is given on the condition that the money cannot be spent (but any interest income earned by the gift can be spent), that is called an endowment.

The definition of "endowment" varies from charity to charity and from state to state. For example, a donor may give money to a charity on the condition that the income from the investment of the gift is paid to his widow for as long as she lives and then what is left can be used by the charity. In some states, that gift would be considered a part of the endowment as soon as it is received. In other states, those funds would have to be invested separately until the widow dies.

Endowment does not include funds set aside for employee and faculty pension obligations or short term cash held for campus operations later in the same year.

Sometimes charities are criticized for setting aside too much money and not spending more each year. For example, the Wikimedia Foundation has been criticized for using persistent fundraising to receive much more money than it plans to spend. Some colleges have been criticized for paying out only a portion of endowment income (to hedge against future inflation) rather than using more of the income for financial aid or for lowering tuition.[1] In general, conservatives try to protect endowment so that it can meet the needs of future generations, while liberals seek to maximize the present benefits of endowments.

Colleges and universities try to have as large an endowment as possible so that the income from those financial investments can subsidize the operating expenses of the institution. Here is a table of the United States universities which have the largest endowments in order of overall size, but also showing size on a per student basis:[2]

Rank School Size Per FTE student[3].
1 Harvard University $39.4 billion $1,607,596
2 University of Texas System $30.9 163,514
3 Yale University $30.3 2,267,714
4 Stanford University $27.7 1,635,946
5 Princeton University $26.1 3,145,372
6 Massachusetts Institute of Technology $17.5 1,533,234
7 University of Pennsylvania $14.6 629,826
8 Texas A&M University System $13.5 109,786
9 University of Michigan $12.4 216,758
10 University of California $11.8 N/A
11 University of Notre Dame $11.3 906,400
12 Northwestern University $11.1 554,576
13 Columbia University $10.9 394,763
14 Duke University $8.6 517,710
15 University of Chicago $8.3 512,297

Many industry experts argue that it is better to compare endowment per student rather than the overall endowment size. Although endowment size is a relative measure of a college's financial strength and stability, there are many other factors that influence the quality of a school. For example, many of these schools include hospital systems with a portion of the endowment supporting hospital operations. Also, public universities generally have lower endowments than private institutions, but public universities receive annual taxpayer appropriations that can make up for a lower annual endowment income. In general, over time, universities earn an average of 4% per year on their endowment investments. So, a $100 million endowment investment may fund annual operations by $4 million per year.

Endowment size generally confers a competitive advantage to colleges with larger endowments, as shown by this table with the top 100 colleges holding 78% of all college endowment assets:

Size of Endowment[4] Number of
% of



Endowment Value ($1,000)+

% of


Over $1 Billion 107 13.9% $493,781,531 78.3%
Over $500 Million to $1 Billion 82 10.6 59,115,866 9.4
Over $250 Million to $500 Million 86 11.1 30,593,706 4.9
Over $100 Million to $250 Million 194 25.1 31,353,350 5.0
Over $50 Million to $100 Million 152 19.5 11,133,160 1.8
Over $25 Million to $50 Million 93 12.0 3,477,199 0.6
$25 Million & Under 60 7.8 996,013 0.2
Total (All Institutions) 774 100.0% $630,450,825 100.0%
Type of Institution
All Public Institutions 294 38% $202,649,849 32.1%
  Public College, University, or System 95 12.3 128,216,455 20.3
  Institution-Related Foundations 154 19.9 46,957,511 7.4
  Combined Endowment/Foundation 45 5.8 27,475,883 4.4
All Private Colleges and Universities 480 62.0% $427,800,976 67.9%

See also


  1. Arenson, Karen. "Senate Looking at Endowments as Tuition Rises", New York Times, January 25, 2008. Retrieved on November 21, 2012. 
  2. U.S. and Canadian Institutions Listed by Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 Endowment Market Value and Change* in Endowment Market Value from FY18 to FY19 (Revised). Retrieved on September 6, 2020.
  3. U.S. and Canadian 2019 NTSE Participating Institutions Listed by Fiscal Year 2019 Endowment Market Value, Percentage Change in Market Value from FY18 to FY19, and FY19 Endowment Market Values Per Full-time Equivalent Student (Excel). Retrieved on September 16, 2020.
  4. 2019 NACUBO-TIAA Study of Endowments, and Total Endowment Market Values+, by Endowment Size and Institution Type. Retrieved on 2020-09-06.