Just How Rich are Some Universities?

Soars. Skyrockets.

No, we’re not talking about LeBron James making an absurd dunk in a recent NBA contest or some extreme athlete achieving new milestones in wingsuit flight. Instead, these are the two most common verbs used in recent headlines describing Harvard University’s growing deficit, reported at $34 million for the most recent fiscal year as opposed to a more modest (but still massive by most of our standards) $7.9 million the year before.

These articles got me thinking. I’m well aware that many elite schools have massive amounts of money at their disposal, from gigantic endowments that achieve significant investment returns to hefty tuition and fees paid by some, but not all attendees. Those big numbers, however, are often hard to fully comprehend. To that end, I’m going to use this post to take a look at the ten largest university endowments at the end of fiscal year 2012, as reported by U.S. News. We’ll then try and put those numbers in a bit better perspective so that you can more easily wrap your head around just what kind of riches we’re truly talking about here.

Harvard University

  • Endowment: $30,745,534,000 

In Perspective: Let’s return to the articles that led off this post, which note that Harvard ran a $34 million deficit this past year. $34 million is a lot of money – but not compared to Harvard’s overall endowment. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that Harvard’s income and expenses both freeze at current levels for the remainder of time, and that it must cover its annual $34 million deficit by taking money out of its endowment. In such a fantasyland, it would take nearly a millennium (905 years, to be exact) before Harvard’s endowment was fully spent.

Yale University

  • Endowment: $19,264,289,000

In Perspective: $19 billion is a hefty chunk of change, though significantly less than what Harvard has in the bank. It’s also roughly equal to the total value of all online shopping done by Canadians in 2012. I wonder how many smiling Amazon boxes that included?

Princeton University

  • Endowment: $17,404,002,000

Stanford University

  • Endowment: $17,035,804,000

In Perspective: We’ll lump these two schools together since their endowments are so similar – what’s a difference of a paltry $370 million or so? Interestingly, $17.2 billion is roughly the net worth of Abigail Johnson, the wealthiest person in Massachusetts. This fascinating article shows what $17 billion can buy, such as every single NBA franchise, a fleet of brand-new airliners, or 25 U.S. presidential campaigns.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

  • Endowment: $10,149,564,000

In Perspective: With their endowment, MIT could buy not only their beloved hometown Boston Red Sox franchise (currently valued by Forbes at roughly $2.06 billion), but also the New England Patriots ($1.8 billion), Boston Celtics ($0.73 billion), and Boston Bruins ($0.35 billion) franchises. They would then have enough left to purchase the New York Yankees ($3.28 billion), New York Jets ($1.38 billion), and most of the New York Rangers ($0.75 billion) franchises, giving New England assured dominance in most sports rivalries with New York for the foreseeable future.

Columbia University

  • Endowment: $7,654,152,000

University of Michigan – Ann Arbor

  • Endowment: $7,586,547,000

Texas A&M University – College Station

  • Endowment: $7,032,203,615

University of Pennsylvania

  • Endowment: $6,754,658,000

University of Notre Dame

  • Endowment: $6,444,599,000

In Perspective: When the 2010 version of Forbes’ annual listing of the richest Americans was published, Mark Zuckerberg saw his personal fortune triple from the previous year, ballooning to $6.9 billion. That’s roughly the average endowment of the five schools listed above. At that time, someone created an infographic showing what cash like that could conceivably buy. After purchasing, among other things, an entire production run of McLarren F1s ($0.138 billion), a brand-new Airbus A380 jumbo jet ($0.315 billion), and a space shuttle ($1.7 billion), the author was still only able to burn through about half of this massive amount of money.

Final Fun Fact: combining the endowments of these ten wealthy universities works out to roughly $130 billion. Over at Wired, Rhett Allain has done some careful calculations and determined that $130 billion is just about the value of the gold stolen and hoarded by Smaug, the dragon from the popular novel (and now movie trilogy, the second installment of which comes out in several weeks), The Hobbit.

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