University staff prepared as endowments fall

By Jill Disis

Universities and colleges haven’t proven to be immune to the effects of the economic recession.

The value of college and university endowments dropped an average of 23 percent during the five month period leading up to Nov. 30, according to a study conducted by the Commonfund Institute and an organization that compiles educational data called Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund.

Endowments, or financial gifts to universities, have dropped equally across public and private institutions.

Public universities experienced a 24 percent drop, while private universities experienced a 22 percent drop.

The original value of the endowments proved to be a factor.

Universities with endowments totaling more than $1 billion experienced a 20 percent drop, and those with endowments between $500 million and $1 billion experienced a 25 percent drop.

Despite a decline from $1.4 billion to $1.03 billion in combined University and University of Illinois Foundation endowment pool values over the course of the 2008 calendar year, the University does not expect very extreme consequences, said Peter Newman, assistant vice president for treasury operations.

“Because these assets are committed to provide support in perpetuity, we can withstand once-in-a-generation markets like 2008,” Newman said.

The drop was only a calendar year number, said Donald Kojich, associate vice president for marketing and communications at the University of Illinois Foundation.

Once statistics are released for the University’s fiscal year, which runs from July 1 until June 30, the numbers could look better than they do now.

“Some of the results are preliminary results or estimates,” Kojich said. “When you’re seeing some of these stats, it’s taking a snapshot during a period of time.”

The discrepancy between public and private universities is also of some merit, Kojich said.

“Some of our Ivy League peers rely on endowment spending for 30 percent or more of their annual budgets,” Newman said. “The University of Illinois is much less reliant on endowment income spending as a percentage of its annual budget.”

Annual endowment income spending in 2008 was $53 million, or 1.4 percent, of the entire $3.9 billion University budget, Newman said.

“20 to 40 percent of private university budgets annually come from endowments,” Kojich said. “Harvard, for example, last year had almost $1 billion they put back into the campus – that’s a huge chunk.”

Newman said the endowment pool is prepared for long term needs, and that there will be plenty of funds for the University to use for several years into the future.

“Will it have an impact? Yes,” Kojich said. “But it’s a much smaller percent of the University’s budget here as a public institution.”