By TAMAR LEWIN
Published: February 1, 2013
On average, investment returns on college and university endowments declined by 0.3 percent in the last fiscal year, a sharp drop from the average return of 19.2 percent in fiscal 2011, according to a study by the Commonfund Institute and the National Association of College and University Business Officers, known as Nacubo.
The returns were dragged down mostly by the dismal performance of international equities, whose returns declined by 11.9 percent, attributable in good part to the economic turmoil in Europe and the slowdown in China. Domestic stocks had an average return of 2 percent, and fixed-income assets 6.8 percent.
The study, based on data from 831 American colleges and universities with a total of more than $400 billion in endowment assets, showed more positive long-term results. Preliminary results were released in late October.
“Over the last 10 years, the average rate of return was 6.2 percent,” said John D. Walda, the president of Nacubo. “That’s a good number when you compare it with various indices.”
In the fiscal year that ended in June 2011, the average 10-year return was 5.6 percent.
The study, which includes large and small institutions, public and private, found that those with the largest endowments had the greatest returns last year. Among universities with endowments greater than $1 billion, the average return was 0.8 percent. Those with endowments of $25 million to $500 million had negative returns, and those with endowments under $25 million had a return of 0.3 percent.
Altogether, 71 institutions have endowments greater than $1 billion, and 145 have more than $500 million.
The colleges and universities in the study spent an average of 4.2 percent of their assets last year to support their operations, down from 4.6 percent the previous year. But while the spending rate had declined somewhat, the average dollars spent per institution grew by about 7 percent. Most colleges and universities have a policy of spending 4 percent to 5 percent of their average endowment value over the previous three years, so the sharp rises in endowment values in 2010 and 2011 increased the amount paid out last year.
The institutions with the largest endowments, which get a significant portion of their operating budgets from endowment spending, spent an average of 4.7 percent last year. The institutions with the smallest endowments spent slightly under 4 percent.
“The long-term goal of most endowments is to exist in perpetuity and grow with the rate of inflation,” said Verne O. Sedlacek, president of Commonfund.
To do that while paying out 4 percent to 5 percent a year, he said, would require annual returns of at least 8 percent, given that the higher education price index has been rising about 3.8 percent a year over the last decade. “Universities are still not back to where they need to be,” Mr. Sedlacek said.