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Free Content Secrets of the Academy: The Drivers of University Endowment Success

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Abstract:

University endowments have received much attention recently for their superior investment returns compared with other institutional investors. This study documents trends in college and university endowment returns and investments in the United States between 1992 and 2005 using data on over a thousand schools. Such endowments have generally performed well over this time period, with a median growth rate of 7.4 percent per year and median return of 6.9 percent. This sector has been dominated both in size and performance by the endowments of elite universities such as the Ivy League schools. The top 20 endowments grew more than 9 percent annually on a real basis between 1992 and 2005. As of 2007, the two largest endowments, belonging to Harvard and Yale, have grown to $35 billion and $22 billion in size, respectively. Much of the growth in endowment size has been driven by investment performance. As we will show in the paper, the top endowments posted impressive returns in 2005, averaging a net real return of 12.3 percent, compared to 4.4 percent posted by the S&P 500 index in the same year. We investigate the underlying drivers of these high returns and show that performance is related to the size of endowment, the quality of the student body, and the use of alternative investments. We caution ordinary investors that mimicking the strategies of the top endowments would not necessarily result in similar returns.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1257/089533008785539872

Publication date: June 1, 2008

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  • The Journal of Economic Perspectives (JEP) attempts to fill a gap between the general interest press and most other academic economics journals. The journal aims to publish articles that will serve several goals: to synthesize and integrate lessons learned from active lines of economic research; to provide economic analysis of public policy issues; to encourage cross-fertilization of ideas among the fields of thinking; to offer readers an accessible source for state-of-the-art economic thinking; to suggest directions for future research; to provide insights and readings for classroom use; and to address issues relating to the economics profession.
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