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A financial endowment is a transfer of money or property donated to an institution, usually with the stipulation that it be invested, and the principal remain intact in perpetuity or for a defined time period. This allows for the donation to have an impact over a longer period of time than if it were spent all at once.

The total value of an institution's investments is referred to as the institution's endowment.

College and university endowments

In the United States, the total endowment can be over one billion dollars at many of the richest universities. However, each university typically has numerous endowments, each of which are frequently restricted to funding very specific areas of the university. The most common examples are endowed professorships (also known as named chairs), and endowed scholarships or fellowships. For instance, Harvard Universitymarker has 10,800 separate endowments.

At universities, typically 4-6% of the endowment's assets are spent every year, with any excess earnings reinvested to augment the endowment and to compensate for inflation and recessions in future years. "Endowment funds have also been created to support public secondary and elementary school districts in several states. Kansas incorporated its first public school district endowment association in Paola, Kansasmarker, a small town of 5000 population, in 1983. Today it has approximately two million dollars in endowed principal which generates approximately $110,000 annually to distribute in scholarships to high school graduates and fund special projects in the district which can not be afforded by the tax base. To promote the development of endowment associations across Kansas, USD 368 Endowment Association which received a statewide award recognizing has developed a "starter kit" to assist other Kansas school districts in the organization and establishment of new endowment associations."

Almost all Universities in the United Kingdom are public rather than commercial institutions. There is therefore less of an endowment funding culture, with financial figures generally much lower.

Restricted endowments

Endowment revenue can be restricted by donors in numerous ways. Professorships and endowed scholarship/fellowships are the most common restriction on large donations to an endowment. The restricted/unrestricted distinction focuses on the use of the funds; see quasi-endowment below for a distinction about whether principal can be spent. An endowment can be restricted in order to persuade a university to receive a particular student, although ethical considerations and tax laws mitigate against this.

Endowed professorships

An endowed professorship (or endowed chair) is a position permanently paid for with the revenue from an endowment fund specifically set up for that purpose. Typically, the position is designated to be in a certain department. The donor is allowed to name the position, which typically takes the format: First-name Last-name professorship of Department-name. Endowed professorships aid the university by providing a faculty member who does not have to be paid entirely out of the operating budget, allowing the university to either reduce its student-to-faculty ratio, a statistic used for college rankings and other institutional evaluations, or direct money that would otherwise have been spent on salaries toward other university needs. In addition, holding such a professorship is considered to be an honor in the academic world, and the university can use them to reward its best faculty or to recruit top professors from other institutions. Currently, a donation of US$1–3 million is required to endow a professorship at the most highly-regarded private and public universities. At smaller state schools, donations in the low six figures may suffice.

The earliest "endowed chairs" were those established by the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius in Athensmarker in AD 176. Aurelius created one endowed chair for each of the major schools of philosophy: Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism. Later, similar endowments were set up in some other major cities of the Empire.

The practice was adapted to the modern university system beginning in England in 1502, when Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and grandmother to the future king Henry VIII, created the first endowed chairs in divinity at the universities of Oxfordmarker and Cambridgemarker.

Nearly 50 years later, Henry VIII established the Regius Professorships at both universities, this time in five subjects: divinity, civil law, Hebrew, Greek, and physic—the last of those corresponding to what we now know as medicine and basic sciences. Today, the University of Glasgowmarker has fifteen Regius Professorships.

Private individuals soon adopted the practice of endowing professorships. Isaac Newton held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge beginning in 1669, more recently held by the celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking.

Endowed scholarship/fellowship

An endowed scholarship is tuition (and possibly other cost) assistance that is permanently paid for with the revenue of an endowment fund specifically set up for that purpose. It can be either merit-based or need-based (which is only awarded to those students for whom the college expense would cause their family financial hardship) depending on university policy or donor preferences. Some universities will facilitate donors' meeting the students they are helping. Given the cost of college, finance is generally a factor when students decide where to go to college. By offering them money, colleges are sometimes able to lure students away from other universities. The amount that must be donated to start an endowed scholarship can vary greatly.

Fellowships are similar, although they are most commonly associated with graduate students. In addition to helping with tuition, they may also include a stipend. Fellowships with a healthy stipend can lure students away from the workforce, to work on a doctorate. Frequently, teaching or working on research is a mandatory part of a fellowship.


A quasi-endowment, or fund functioning as an endowment, are funds merely earmarked by an organization’s governing board, rather than restricted by a donor or other outside agency, to be invested to provide income for a long but unspecified period, and the governing board has the right to decide at any time to expend the principal of such funds. Separately from the endowment versus quasi-endowment distinction, there's another 2-way categorization of restricted and unrestricted, which focuses on the use of the funds. As an example, a quasi-endowment might be restricted to supporting the tennis team; the use is restricted to one purpose, but the governing board could "invade principal" to support the tennis team.


Officials in charge of the endowments of some universities have been criticized for "hoarding" and reinvesting too much of the endowment’s income. Given a historical endowment performance of 10–11%, and a payout rate of 5%, around half of the endowment’s income is reinvested. Roughly 3% of the reinvestment is used to keep pace with inflation, leaving an inflation-adjusted 2% annual growth of the endowment. Of course, many endowments fail to earn 10-11 percent.

Two arguments against inflation adjusted endowment growth are:

  1. The future needs the money less than the present

    Some claim that the future will be much richer materially than the present due to technological innovation and specialization. In counterpoint, Nobel laureate James Tobin makes a case for intergenerational equity.
  2. A constantly growing endowment shields universities from competitive forces

    As the endowment’s reinvestment starts becoming a larger part of its growth, the need for happy students and alumni to donate funds to the university’s budget and endowment is reduced. Therefore, traditional market forces that provide incentives to run a university efficiently may be greatly reduced and at least theoretically lead to university administration not being held accountable for its actions. (This might also be considered a worthy goal, as it would mean the freedom of academia from financial concerns, which could cause a wider range of research topics to be available to students and faculty.)

See also


  1. National Association of Colleges and University Business Professionals' Endowment Study - Contains list of colleges ranked by endowment size, and information about endowment performance.
  2. The Harvard Guide: Harvard's Endowment Funds
  3. So Nicely Endowed! Newsweek: Kaplan College Guide
  4. Cornell's "Celebrating Faculty" Website
  5. [1]
  6. [2]
  7. Lady Margaret's 500 year legacy - University of Cambridge.
  8. A Brief History of The Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics at Cambridge University - by Robert Bruen.
  9. Donald Frey, "University endowment returns are underspent", Challenge, July–August 2002.

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