An assessment carried out by AllAboutUni.com reveals that a massive accumulation of endowment wealth has been put together by the World’s Top-25 universities . AllAboutUni.com is an independent, global and interactive website where visitors can obtain information about universities (global rankings, student reviews, university news and campus pictures).
The World’s Top-25 universities in 2008 (click here) are mainly located in the United States (18 out of 25) and are often private institutions (11 out of 25). This distribution is more pronounced for the World’s Top-10 universities, where 8 out of 10 are located in the United States (US) and 7 out of 10 are private institutions.
Total endowments for each of the universities were collected from Wikipedia.org (accessed on 29 October 2008), and non-US endowments were converted into US dollars (exchange rate of 29 October 2008). The endowments of two universities were not available: the University of Tokyo in Japan (ranked 19th) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology – Zurich in Switzerland (ranked jointly 24th). The analysis is therefore based on 23 universities (18 from the US and 5 from other countries (United Kingdom (3), Canada and Japan) and is a conservative estimate.
The total endowment of the 23 universities was $170.2 billion, and ranged from $172 million (University College London in the UK, ranked 22nd) to $36.9 billion (Harvard University in the US, ranked 1st). The median endowment is $5.9 billion, with universities in the US having higher endowments (median of $6.1 billion, range $471 million to $36.9 billion) than those in the other countries (median of $2.2 billion, range $172 million to $3.4 billion).
Four private universities in the US had 56% of the total endowment wealth of the World’s Top-25 universities: Harvard University ($36.9 billion – 22%), Yale University ($22.9 billion – 14%), Stanford University ($17.2 billion – 10%) and Princeton University ($17 billion – 10%). It is therefore no surprise that the private universities in the US have higher endowments (median of $7.2 billion) than the public universities in the US (median of $1.3 billion).
This accumulation of wealth by the World’s Top-25 universities is quite astonishing. For example, the total wealth accumulated by the World’s Top-25 universities is greater than the budget of the State of California ($111 billion in 2008-09) or it places these universities 41st in the country ranking of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) according to the International Monetary Fund (in front of Nigeria, Romania and Israel). The accumulation of endowment wealth by universities has both positive and negative sides. A large university endowment supports the operating budget of the university and gives the university greater independence and resources which can be used, for example, to establish new research institutes or to fund scholarships. In the fiscal year 2008, distributions from the Harvard University endowment totalled $1.6 billion, contributing more than one third of the university’s operating budget in addition to supporting substantial capital outlays.
There are also a number of negative sides associated with large university endowments. One of these is that it gives the university an image of accumulating too much wealth and being greedy. Another is that it leads to criticism about the allocation of the endowment income (for example, Harvard University could allow its students to attend for free for just $300 million, which is a fraction of the 2008 endowment income. Finally, it makes it impossible for other (less well endowed) universities around the world to compete on an even playing field with universities that have established very large endowments.
Background note:  The analysis is based on a ranking of the World’s Top-500 Universities produced by the Institute of Higher Education at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Several indicators of academic or research performance are used to establish the ranking, these include staff winning Nobel Prizes, highly cited researchers and articles indexed in major citation indices. The rankings have been published since 2003, with the 2008 ranking published on 15 August 2008.