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U.S. colleges: What bad economy? Gifts rise 8.2% to $30.3 billion

February 15, 2012 |  9:32 am

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Donations to U.S. colleges and universities rose 8.2% last year as institutions of higher education improved their financial condition after some tough economic years, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Council for Aid to Education.

The survey showed that charitable contributions reached $30.3 billion in 2011, the second time the total had crossed the $30-billion mark -- but it was still down from the $31.6 billion record in 2008. Adjusted for inflation, last year’s increase is 4.8% over 2010, according to the Voluntary Support of Education survey.

The good fundraising news doesn’t automatically mean that parents and students won’t face tuition increases.

According to the council, 13.6% of the giving went to capital purposes such as endowments and buildings, while 4.7% went to operations. Because not all dollars can be used to defray current-year expenses, last year’s giving accounts for 3.8% of expenditures, one of the major drivers in tuition.

As is common in such giving, rich universities will continue to get richer while the less well-endowed will have to enjoy college spirit, rather than money.

Of the $30.3 billion collected, $8.2 billion was raised by the top 20 institutions, about 2% of the 1,009 respondents in the annual survey. Fundraising in the top tier grew by 15.3% over the year before.

The top quarter of those responding to the survey accounted for 86.3% of all giving, while the bottom quarter received just 1%.

It is not surprising that the rich schools gets richer and draw more contributions. The top schools read like a who’s who of educational ties. They tend to graduate alumni who move into the top spots of their professions and are able to give at that level. In addition, those schools are the ones with the most cutting-edge research and reputations, hence they can attract charitable dollars at a faster rate.

Once again, the top fundraising school was Stanford University, followed by Harvard University, the one-two combination in 2010 and 2006. Yale University, which had fallen to seventh in 2010 returned to its No. 3 perch. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University round out the top five.

Even though it was the top school receiving $709.4 million, Stanford’s take was down 22.1% from 2006. By contrast, MIT received $534.3 million last year, up 126.8% from 2006 when it ranked 21.

The other high-performing schools over time were the University of California at San Francisco, which jumped from 26th to ninth place from 2006 to 2011, and the University of Texas at Austin which went from 29th place to 11th in the same period.

The University of Southern California, which was fourth last year, dropped to 10th. It received $402.4 million in 2011, a 5.5% decrease from 2010 but just a 0.8% slide from 2006.

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Photo: Bicyclists ride on Palm Drive toward the Stanford University campus. Stanford received the largest amount of charitable donations in 2011. Credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press

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