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Posted at 4:30 AM ET, 01/28/2010

Top college rankings vs. endowments

By Valerie Strauss

When I looked at the list of top college endowments (a new report on these funds was released today) I had a nagging feeling that I had seen the same schools on a different list.

Then I remembered: Many of the top 10 schools were the same as those on U.S. News & World Report’s 2009 list of top national universities (which, actually looks very similar to the lists of earlier years).

Take a look at the following lists, and then the reason I find this problematic.

First is the top 10 endowments as listed in today’s report by the National Association of College and University Business Officers and the Commonfund. That report looks at the nearly 850 endowments of college and universities and found that from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009, an average 18.7 percent was lost.

Following that is the U.S. News & World report 2009 list of top national universities.

Here are the schools with the top largest endowments as ranked in today’s study. Also shown is the size of the endowment and the percent it changed from 2008.

1. Harvard University
2009: $25,662,055
2008: $36,556,284
-29.8 percentage change

2. Yale University
2009: $16,327,000
2008: $22,870,000
-28.6 percentage change

3. Stanford University
2009: $12,619, 094
2008: $17,214,373
-26.7 percentage change

4. Princeton University
2009: $12,614,313
2008: $16,349,329
-22.8 percentage change

5. University of Texas System
2009: $12,163,049
2008: $16,171,184
-24.8 percentage change

6. University of Michigan
2009: $6,000,824
2008: $7,571,184
-24.8 percentage change

7. Columbia University
2009: $5,892,78
2008: $7345,226
-19.8 percentage change

8. Northwestern University
2009: $5,445,260
2008: $7,243,948
-24.8 percentage change

9. Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania
2009; $5,170,538
2008: $6,211,622
-23.2 percentage change

10. University of Chicago
2009: $5,094,087
2008: $6,632,311
-23.2 percentage change

And here’s the top 2009 U.S. News national universities (which are NOT misnumbered; there were ties):

1. Harvard University
1. Princeton University
3. Yale University
4. California Institute of Technology
4. Massachussetts Institute of Technology
4. Stanford University
8. Columbia University
8. University of Chicago
10. Duke University

Two schools (Michigan and Northwestern) and one entire university state system (Texas) are on the top endowment list and not on the top U.S. News list. Cal Tech, MIT and Duke are on the U.S. News list and not the endowment list--but don’t feel too badly for them; Duke is 14th on the endowment list, Cal Tech is 36th on the endowment list, and MIT’s endowment stood at $8 billion last June 30, down 20.7 percent from a year before that ($10.1 billion).

It’s hardly a surprise that the wealthiest schools would rank highest on the U.S. News list. That ranking, as well as others, take a superficial (and often inaccurate) measure of quality that is too often mistaken for something deep and important.

In fact, in the U.S. News list, the largest factor considered is a subjective measure in which top college officials are asked to give their opinion about the reputation of other schools. Yes, the reputation of other schools. A lot of money makes it easy to have a powerful reputation, doesn’t it?

This is not to say that wealthy schools do not do fine things with their money. They do.

But there are many, many schools with far fewer resources that would actually be a better choice for many students. They just don’t get ranked as high. In our ranking-obsessed culture, top rankings can matter a lot in terms of support and attention. So the big well-known schools stay big and well known.

When you start looking for schools, remember that the rankings are often based on measures that are downright silly. Give less well-known, and less highly ranked schools a chance. That's the real lesson.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 28, 2010; 4:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college endowments, college rankings  
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Gosh, I have to disagree with you a bit. I think that looking at the endowments is important. A well-endowed school is probably more likely to be able and willing to give out increased financial aid. They tend to have good physical plants and not operate under the shadow of having to pinch pennies at every turn.

But wealth alone doesn't put a school at the top of the heap. In my book, it's what they actually do with the money that counts. In fact, sometimes a school can look like it has too much money. A place with a big endowment, high tuition, and lackluster financial aid tells me that they don't seem to want to use the endowment for the benefit of the undergraduate student, and maybe they're more interested in research projects that tend to benefit the school's reputation and standing rather than directly benefit the student. Some schools don't seem to get that they're there for the students and not just to perpetuate themselves.

Posted by: dmcgrann | January 28, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

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