College endowments had their worst year since the recession

New York state could soon offer free college tuition
New York state could soon offer free college tuition

Last year was the worst year for college endowment returns since the financial crisis.

Endowments lost an average of 1.9% after accounting for fees, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Average returns were negative across the board, for public and private colleges with endowments of all sizes. Harvard, which has the biggest endowment in the country, lost about 2%.

The disappointing year brings down the 10-year average annual return to 5%, well below the 7.4% that many colleges aim for.

Some of the biggest losses came from investments in energy and natural resources, commodities, and alternatives like hedge funds. Private equity and real estate investments performed the best.

Related: Harvard endowments cuts jobs

But there was some good news. Despite the losses, colleges continued to increase spending from their funds to support financial aid, research, and other programs, according to the report.

During his campaign, President Donald Trump criticized wealthy colleges for not spending enough of their endowments to bring down the cost of college for students.

But universities say that's not as easy as it sounds. Typically, they spend between 4% and 5% consistently to make sure the money meets the needs of the college today and in the future. Plus, donations made to endowments are usually restricted for a specific use, like financial aid or upkeep of the library.

Related: Why colleges with billions of dollars still charge tuition

And some experts argue that requiring the richest colleges to spend more of their endowments would do little to address the overall college affordability crisis.

While there's a lot of wealth concentrated at the top, the colleges with the biggest endowments already offer big scholarships to students from the poorest families. At Harvard, for example, any family earning less than $65,000 pays nothing. And those making between $65,000 and $150,000 won't have to pay more than 10% of their income.

Here are the colleges with the biggest endowments:

1. Harvard University: $34.5 billion

2. Yale University: $25.4 billion

3. University of Texas system: $24.2 billion

4. Stanford University: $22.4 billion

5. Princeton University: $22.2 billion

6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: $13.2 billion

7. University of Pennsylvania: $10.7 billion

8. Texas A&M University system: $10.5 billion

9. University of Michigan: $9.7 billion

10. Northwestern University: $9.6 billion

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