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As Endowments Shrink, So Do Studies of Them

November 25, 2008

Okay, that headline was probably a cheap shot. It's only a quirk of timing, after all, that the sponsors of two major annual surveys of college and university endowments -- the National Association of College and University Business Officers and Commonfund Institute -- are announcing today that they will merge their separate studies to create a single comprehensive one, beginning next year. The idea has been in the works since last winter, and makes good sense in any economic climate, officials of the two organizations say.

"In the last two to three years, it became more and more obvious that having two full studies out there, while useful, was not in the best interests of our clients or members of NACUBO," John Griswold, executive director of the Commonfund Institute, said in an interview Monday.

But if combining the two surveys of college endowments and financial practices made good sense before the current economic downturn, the logic is even more powerful now, for two reasons, said John Walda, president and CEO of NACUBO. "The times dictate that we have a report available that has the best analysis and allows for the most robust benchmarking, because endowments are under such scrutiny these days, and because they are so important to operating budgets," he said.

And while combining the surveys is unlikely to save individual colleges or the two organizations significant money, at least in the short term, Walda said, the merger will certainly save the hundreds of colleges that participate in both surveys serious time and person power. Filling out the surveys "takes enough time that many of our members have said, 'Why do I have to do this?' "

NACUBO's annual survey of endowments is 30 years old and has long served as the largest collection of quantitative information about college and university endowments. It features, among other things, a widely used list of data on about 800 individual institutions. The Commonfund Institute, an affiliate of Commonfund, which invests money on behalf of about 1,800 nonprofit organizations and institutions, established its own survey in 2000 to focus more on qualitative aspects of endowment management and financial governance, with a particular emphasis on the issues and problems facing its members. (It also publishes only aggregate information about the 760 institutions in its survey, about 550 of which are colleges, though it provides information for benchmarking to its members.)

For most of the last decade, the two organizations have issued reports, typically reporting similar overall patterns, within a week or two of each other early each winter. Surveys covering the 2008 fiscal year are due out in a few weeks.

The groups have worked closely together on various projects and issues over the years, and in March began discussing in earnest the prospect of combining the two surveys. The goal, officials of the two organizations said, is to combine NACUBO's breadth and scope with the Commonfund survey's "analytical ability and strategic perspective," as Walda put it, to create an "a much more robust report with regard to endowments." Officials of the organizations estimated that the combined survey will provide data on about 1,000 colleges and universities, and will continue to "bring forward the sort of inquiry into policy issues and qualitative issues" on which Commonfund has historically focused, said Griswold.

Crafting a common survey form has posed a few challenges, as the groups have used differing definitions and approaches in some cases (when assessing how institutions allocate their assets, for instance, Commonfund weights its survey so that institutions with the largest endowments shape the results more than others, while NACUBO weights all institutions equally). But those differences are relatively minor, and will matter little to most consumers of the information, Griswold said.

The new combined survey, covering the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2009, will roll out in January 2010, and the expectation, said Verne O. Sedlacek, president and CEO of Commonfund, is that it will not only be better than either survey is independently, but will make life easier (and more efficient) for college officials along the way.

"The whole industry," he said, "will accrue savings."

 

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