Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Endowment

September 06

Canadian University Finance Statistics (2015-16 Edition)

The 2015-16 version of Financial Information of Universities and Colleges Survey (which, confusingly, doesn’t include community colleges) was released over the summer.  As in previous years I’m going to do a little summary of what it tells us about how income and expenditure has change over one year and five years.  Just so we’re all clear, all figures here are in real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) dollars.  And – caveat – comparisons with 2010-11 are a little weird because Quebec universities changed their fiscal year-end that year and only reported 11 months of data, meaning that nationally, reported expenditures for that year are probably about 1.5% lower than they normally would be.  This means that 5-year averages are probably inflated slightly compared to reality.

For starters, let’s look at total income by source, which was $34,385 million.  That’s down nearly 5% from the previous year, though the a little over 75% of the drop is due to a fall in endowment income (apparently everyone got hammered in 2015).  Income from governments fell by a little under 2%, nearly all due to reductions at the provincial level.  Over the past five years, revenue from government is down by a stonking 12.6%.  However, rising fee income mostly compensates for this: it rose by nearly 5% over 2014-15 and 27% over 2010-11.  For the most part, these increases are not coming from domestic student fees, they are coming from increases in international student enrolment.

Figure 1: Change in Total Income by Source, Canadian Universities, 2015-16

What’s really interesting about the total income numbers is how small the government numbers are becoming.  Already as of 2014, the university sector as a whole took in more money from non-governmental sources (fees, donations, sale of goods and services, etc) than it did combined from the federal and provincial governments.  On current trends, income from student fees will surpass provincial government grants to universities in 2020-21, and will pass combined federal and provincial contributions in 2024-2025.  At which point it would be fair to say we will have moved from a public university system to a publicly-assisted university system.

Now, on to the changes in income by Fund, which I show below in Figure 2.  This tells a slightly different story.  Operating income actually kept pace with inflation in 2015-16 and over a five year period actually increased by 8.8%.  Endowment income fell from about $1.5 billion to about 27 million, or a fall of roughly 98%, but this is an erratic income source and like I said last year was a bad year.  Capital expenditures are down substantially, but recall that in the base year of 2010-11 the feds were sacrificing billions to the Construction Industry Gods to keep the recession at bay; in fact, current capital expenditure is close to the 30-year norm.  The interesting piece is that sponsored research income is down 6% over the past five years.

Figure 2: Change in Income by Fund, Canadian Universities, 2015-16

On to expenditures by type.  Total expenditures are roughly unchanged either over one year or five years. If you’re wondering how this is possible when income is down, recall that most of the income drop is in endowment, which has very little impact on year-to-year spending since it’s supposed to all be salted away anyway.   But while total expenditures are unchanged, some fairly big line items continue to rise, over the medium if not the short term.  Academic salaries by 7.5%, salaries to non-academic staff 8.3%, total compensation (including benefits) 8.3% and scholarships – three-quarters of which go to grad students – up by a whopping 16.4% since 2010-11.  Total scholarship expenditures are now just shy of $2 billion, which means institutions are giving back to students over 20 cents of every dollar they collect from students; from domestic students the figure is closer to 30 cents.

Figure 3: Change in Selected Types of Expenditure, Canadian Universities 2015-16


Now you may well ask yourself: wait a minute.  Total expenditures are flat, but salaries and scholarships are rising.  So how does this balance? Well, simple enough: non-salary, non-scholarship expenditures have fallen by 14% in the last five years in constant dollars.  Some of that is just buildings not getting built (no loss, in the eyes of some), but other things are getting squeezed, too; notably, renovations, travel and printing.

Finally, let’s look specifically at what’s going on inside the operating budget (that is, excluding ancillary, capital, research and the like) which accounts for about 60% of the total.  Figure 4 shows that overall, operating expenditures rose by 14.3% over five years.  How is this possible when operating income only rose 8.8% you ask?  Mainly, because universities have been trimming margins: universities were running surpluses five years ago and mostly aren’t any more.


Figure 4: Changes in Operating Budget Expenditures, Canadian Universities, 2015-16

The big expenditure increases are in ICT and student services.  In the case of student services, an awful lot of that increase is scholarships.  In ICT, interestingly, the cost of equipment purchased has actually gone down: the increases are in staff costs, consulting contracts, professional fees and equipment rentals.  Make of that what you will.  The biggest piece of the pie – Instruction and non-sponsored research (meaning basically what it costs to run core academic functions), which takes up about half the operating budget – is up 11.7 % over five years.

So there you go.  Don’t say financial reports aren’t fun.


April 29

Free Harvard Fair Harvard

Harvard has a unique Governance structure.  Basically, it has two boards and no Senate.  One of the two boards – the Board of Overseers – is composed entirely of Harvard alumni.  It has thirty members and the membership turns over a bit each year with annual elections.  This year’s annual election is a bit of a doozy.

Back in January, an alumni and businessman by the name of Ron Unz submitted a slate of candidates – which included consumer activist and former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader – on a “Free Harvard/Fair Harvard” platform.  His double-barreled manifesto, as its name implies, is to get Harvard first use some of its vast endowment to reduce tuition and second to move to a system of race-blind admissions.

What should we make of this?

Well, the first demand is ludicrous.  75% of Harvard graduates end up with no debt, either because they come from wealth and can afford the fees or have income sufficiently low that they received something close to a full ride (technically, Harvard doesn’t give a full-ride in the sense that a student will be expected to work a few hours a week no matter what, but it’s awfully close).   In practice, for a family of 3 with no assets outside of housing and retirement funds, income needs to be about $150,000/year before the aid package drops below the level of tuition (you can play with Harvard’s net price calculator here.  Pretty clearly then, making Harvard “free” genuinely would only benefit those with very high family income.  And frankly why would anyone want to do that?

The second demand is trickier.  The slate is making quite a bit of hay out of data that Asian-American students are being discriminated against in the application process.  Unz himself wrote quite a fierce piece on this in 2012, which suggested that as far as Ivy League admissions are concerned, Asians are the “new Jews” – a reference to the fact that Ivies imposed much higher entrance requirements on Jews than gentiles prior to WWII so that the former did not swamp the latter and drive away all those nice WASPs to whom the Ivies were in fact beholden for fund raising (this story is told in excellent detail in Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen, which is a history of admissions and the concept of merit at Ivy League schools).  Unz in effect argues – and it is difficult to disagree with him, based on the evidence – that increasingly the group that is “paying” for affirmative action (that is, policies which give Black and Hispanic students preferential access to spots at Ivy League schools) is Asian-Americans, not whites.

There’s no doubt that Unz’s narrative is troubling (though it should be noted not all his claims appear to be factually correct).  That said, his solution here is effectively to end affirmative action.  Given the extent to which Harvard graduates dominate public life in the United States, ending affirmative action would have an enormous effect on the ability of Blacks and Hispanics to access some of the upper corridors of American society.  Add that to the fact that Unz has in the past funded groups with some fairly unpleasant white supremacist associations, as well as sponsoring ballot initiatives against bilingual education, and you can see why some people think that behind Unz’ pre-occupation with fairness for Asian-Americans lie some much nastier anti-Black and anti-Hispanic prejudices.

The presence of the Unz slate has prompted the formation of an opposing “Coalition for a Diverse Harvard” slate, which is vigorously defending the current admissions system.   The balloting is by mail, and results will be announced on May 26th.  The results will be closely watched, particularly in a Presidential election year.  If Harvard’s own alumni – a group which you’d think would be in the tank for the Democrats – votes against affirmative action and for spending more endowment money on the richest of the rich, it will cause some interesting ripples in the campaign.  For that reason, I think it’s quite unlikely to come about, but then again I wouldn’t have guessed Ralph Nader would ally himself with this set of ideas, either.

April 21

Harvard. I Mean, Really.

Last week, the Harvard Crimson printed some unofficial estimates on the university’s current capital campaign.  Be forewarned: these numbers will give many of you a heart attack, so to soften the impact I’m going to lead  by providing some background on the campaign. 

Universities raise money.  Sometimes it’s small donations, sometimes it’s big ones.  Sometime the university spends that money right away, sometimes the money goes into an endowment, which means the capital is available in perpetuity and the university only a small fraction each year (often less than the interest earned).  The standard “take” from endowments these days is 4%, hence the fundraising joke “the quickest way to turn $1 million into $40,000 is to endow it”.  Big donations – the kind you read about in the papers – are almost always endowments.

(The campaign numbers are two paragraphs away.  Are you sitting comfortably?  I want you to be sitting comfortably, because it’s going to be a shock.)

Every 15 years or so universities do something called a “capital campaign”. This is an intense, time-limited effort to get a lot of money out of donors, usually for purposes of acquiring specific physical assets like a new building or two – though the politics of universities are such that capital campaigns aren’t entirely about infrastructure (it’s suicide not to fundraise for scholarships at the same time, for instance).  Capital campaigns always have the same format: they start with a “quiet” period in which money is raised behind the scenes.  Then, after a year or more, they have a public launch ceremony in which the institution sets a goal for the campaign and announces that “surprise!” they’ve already met some suitably high percentage of that goal.  Needless to say, this is always done in such a way that the announced goal will be surpassed.  The face(s) of this effort are always drawn from the senior ranks of local business and alumni.

(Are you ready?  The number is coming.  Deep breath.)

The largest ever university capital campaign was concluded in 2011 at Stanford University, which raised $6.2 billion.  Naturally, when Harvard launched its campaign in 2013, it set a target of $6.5 billion ($8.1 billion Canadian), of which it raised $2.8 billion during the “quiet” phase.  Last week the Crimson broke the story that the $6.5 billion target had been reached.  The University declined to comment, noting that it only announces updates every October, but if true this means that with two years to go, the campaign is on track to raise something on the order of $10 billion by the time it finishes in 2018.

(Everything OK?  Another deep breath.)

Think briefly, if you will, about what $8 billion looks like.  It’s about three years worth of the entire budgets of our granting councils.  It is 33% more than the gross domestic product of Prince Edward Island; (or, if you want to get all internationalist about it, equal to the GDP of Malawi).  It is more or less equal to the aggregate operating budgets of all the universities in Ontario.  And remember, this is just the take from four and a half years of a capital campaign.  We’re not talking the entire endowment here – that’s six times as large again (US$37.6 Billion at last reporting but presumably around US$40 billion now).

Of course, all of this money comes tax-free.  Donations are deductible to the donor, and of course universities are charities and consequently exempt from most taxes.  But at a certain point you have to wonder whether or not Harvard is a charity in any meaningful way.  What’s the public good of having all this money go to a single institution?  Assuming a 30% tax rate, the Harvard campaign has cost American governments almost $2.2 billion in lost revenue.  Imagine the number of students that could be supported with that money. 

Recently, the legislature in Connecticut debated taxing charities’  endowments (read: Yale’s endowment) if they exceeded $10 billion because beyond a certain point it’s tough to make the case that there’s a genuine public benefit to that money.  In the end, they chose not to pursue this idea, but this is – deservedly – going to be a significant public policy issue for the next few years.  There are limits to the amount of money a university needs.  Berkeley aside, the top half-dozen American research universities are now reaching that limit.

January 30

The Case of Southwestern Ontario

Yesterday I talked about ways universities can generate economic growth, and I promised to offer an example from Southwestern Ontario.

Southwestern Ontario has been in the news a lot recently due to its deteriorating economy, not least through the efforts of Western professor Mike Moffatt.  More recently, the Globe’s Adam Radwanski penned a feature article on what southwestern Ontario can learn from such economic revivals as has happened in the US rust belt.

Radwanski’s argument is a long one, but the bit relevant to post-secondary education just cites the examples of Pittsburgh and Akron, and says that universities should work more closely with industry to create new hi-tech centres of production.  Right off the bat, I think we can discard the Pittsburgh example.  For one thing, the city is in fact continuing to hemorrhage manufacturing jobs (3,000 last year alone), and for a second, the two institutions that have done the most to power the local economy are Carnegie Mellon (private) and Pittsburgh (semi-private), with a combined endowment of $5.6 billion.  Last I checked, the combined total for Western and Windsor was around $700 million.

Endowments matter because they allow institutions to take risks.  It’s probably not a coincidence that if you look at major US tech and innovation hubs where universities have served as a catalyst (e.g. Silicon Valley, Route 150 in Boston), the institutions at the heart are all private, and hence not worried about legislative scrutiny.  The only exception to this rule – UT Austin – just happens to be the world’s second-best endowed public university ($6 billion in assets, behind Michigan at $8 billion).

Ah, you say – but what about Akron?  That’s a public university, and it had a big role in helping the local rubber industry transition into a centre of excellence for polymers.  And yes, Akron is actually an excellent example, because it has a very close Ontario counterpart; namely, the University of Waterloo.

These days, people associate Waterloo with co-op, engineering, and integration with the local hi-tech economy.  But it’s worth remembering that when Waterloo started out in the late 1950s, the hi-tech economy didn’t exist.  Back then, Waterloo’s main industry – like Akron’s – was tires, and for the first decade or so of its existence, Waterloo was all about working with the tire industry.

Could Waterloo have worked harder to “save” the local tire industry, as UAkron did in Ohio?  Possibly.  But one big thing Akron had going for it was the fact that Goodyear had its corporate headquarters there.  Companies tend to do R&D close to home.  Even if Waterloo had tried some of the stuff Akron did, there’s no guarantee it would have had the same results because at the end of the day, Waterloo was a branch plant economy.  That matters.

Instead, of course, Waterloo did something better: it invented a new local industry essentially from scratch.  This did not occur by “working with industry” as we traditionally think about it.  It happened by giving a lot of people advanced training in a particular area, letting them create and spin-out companies, and then wait for the local economy to develop the deep pool of managerial skills and venture capital sources required to take products from concept to market.

(The importance of this last bit is insufficiently appreciated.  Take UBC, one of the country’s leaders in technology transfer: its life sciences spin-offs had a miserable time in the 80s and 90s because back then the only thing the local VCs and entrepreneurs understood was how to cut down trees and dig stuff out of the ground.  There’s a domestic life-sciences business ecology in Vancouver now, but it took 20 years to develop the required knowledge and skills.)

So, could Western University play a role like U Akron or U Waterloo?  Yes.  But it would have to bet on an industry or two (and it’s not clear which ones would make most sense).  And for the moment it is unclear that they have the desire, the cash, or the political backing to do so.  And even if they did, results would likely take a decade or more to show.  It’s a fix, but not a quick one.