Contributions and gifts to colleges and universities in 2015 reached a staggering $40.3 billion, according to the latest Voluntary Support to Education survey, done annually by the Council for Aid to Education. Nearly 1,000 colleges and schools in the United States participated in the survey, and the gifts they reported surpassed last year’s $37.45 billion. While every gift counts, some counted for a lot more. The institutions whose students should be smiling the most broadly belong to a small subset of the nation's educational institutions.

Elite Schools Benefit Most

The schools that made it to the top 20 (five public and 15 private) together raised $11.56 billion, accounting for 28.7% of the total. The survey’s findings illustrate what some educators and education critics identify as an ever-widening gap between wealthy institutions for higher learning and the rest of the pack.

Case in point: The usual suspects – Stanford and Harvard – topped this year’s list. Stanford, ranked number one on the survey, raised a record $1.63 billion, and Harvard followed with $1.05 billion. These schools, which also topped the list last year, were the the only universities to raise more than $1 billion in one year. Rounding out the top five (amounts are listed below): the University of Southern California, the University of California at San Francisco and Cornell. Five out of the top 20 are in California, and six are Ivy League. 

Four of the top 20 listed – Princeton (eighth), Stanford (first), Northwestern (ninth) and the University of California at San Francisco (fourth) – received eight gifts of $100 million or more, totaling $1.44 billion. The biggest surprise on this year's list was the University of California at San Francisco; it jumped from twelfth last year to fourth this year. Why? An individual donor helped catapult it up the list. Charles F. Feeney’s The Atlantic Philanthropies gave the university a $177 million grant to establish the Global Brain Health Institute, to be run jointly with Trinity College Dublin.

School Spirit

The money donated by alumni rose 10.2%, totaling $10.85 billion; however, alumni participation declined (partly because more "alumni of record" were located by their schools). The survey shows that the proportion of those givers fell to 8.4%, from 8.6% in the previous year. Gifts from non-alumni (parents, personal donors, other family members) rose too, by 23.1%. In addition, gifts from foundations, including family foundations, also increased, by 3.6%. The survey noted that some categories were down.  Corporate giving was characterized as flat this year and gifts from "other organizations" were down 1.2%.

Beyond the Monetary

According to the survey, appreciated property, including art, rose in fiscal 2015. One such gift reported was a gift of art – in the form of more than 121 sculptures and paintings – to Stanford and a set of rare books to Princeton, which ranks eighth on the survey. The gift of appreciated property increased just 1.6%, but the value of those gifts grew 164.9%. Gifts of appreciated property is a growing trend: 273 institutions reported such gifts in 2015 and, according to the survey, the value of these gifts has been increasing over several surveys.. 

Institutions That Raised the Most (and Amount Raised), 2015

1. Stanford University ($1.63 billion)
2. Harvard University ($1.05 billion)
3. University of Southern California ($653.03 million)
4. University of California at San Francisco ($608.58 million)
5. Cornell University ($590.64 million)
6. Johns Hopkins University ($582.68 million)
7. Columbia University ($552.68 million)
8. Princeton University ($549.84 million)
9. Northwestern University ($536.83 million)
10. University of Pennsylvania ($517.20 million)
11. University of California at Los Angeles ($473.21 million)
12. Duke University ($472.01 million)
13. University of Washington ($447.02 million)
14. University of Chicago ($443.79 million)
15. Yale University ($440.81 million)
16. New York University ($439.66 million)
17. Massachusetts Institute of Technology ($439.40 million)
18. University of Michigan ($394.31 million)
19. University of Notre Dame ($379.87 million)
20. University of California at Berkeley ($366.12 million)

Source: 2015 Annual Voluntary Support to Education survey by the Council for Aid to Education.

The Bottom Line

No one would argue that the top 20 schools in the survey are elite intuitions – whether they are public or private. As Doug Lederman reported today in Inside Higher Ed that “a small and exclusive coterie of institutions is disproportionately benefiting from donors' largesse." This funding only enhances the gap. (For more, see Is University Prestige Really That Important?)

It is likely that concern over the huge donations to such a tight group of ultra-wealthy universities and colleges will continue to further debate over America’s haves and have-nots – especially in 2016’s upcoming elections. (For more, see Does It Pay to Go to College?)


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