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Slow economy hits local college endowments
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A recent study shows the value of university and college endowments fell by almost 19 percent on average during fiscal year 2009. Authors of the study described it as the worst decline since the Great Depression.

Local colleges and universities were no exception.

Ed Schrader, president of Brenau University in Gainesville, said the school’s endowment took about a 27 percent hit.

"I think we rode the market down and we’re riding the market back up," Schrader said. "We’ve recovered a little over half over what that loss was."

The endowment is now at $28.4 million, and it bottomed at around $23.5 million.

"We don’t take much from the endowment each year from an operating standpoint, and I think that was to our benefit the last couple of years," Schrader said. "We probably took $1 million less from our endowment earnings last year so we wouldn’t dip into it unreasonably. ... Our budget’s about $40 million, so making up a $1 million loss in endowment income is not impossible."

Kate Maine, a spokeswoman for North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, said the school’s endowment decreased 14.7 percent during fiscal year 2009, which ended June 30.

It went from almost $27 million in 2008 to just less than $23 million in 2009.

"It’s actually much better than some schools saw," Maine said.

Maine said for public universities like North Georgia, state funding "does not come close" to covering all costs, so endowments are an important source of funding.

"It supports a wide range of opportunities at the university from scholarships to professional development for faculty and staff to community-oriented projects to operating expenses," Maine said. "It helps fill the gap where state resources are not able to meet the need."

Mary Transue, vice president of institutional advancement for Gainesville State College in Oakwood, said while the school’s endowment dropped along with the stock market, Gainesville State continued to offer scholarships.

"We also had donor-driven scholarships that were not part of the endowment," she said.

While the downturn hit all types of universities nationally, elite schools such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford absorbed some of the deepest losses. Some of the richest private schools, which rely heavily on endowments to operate and flourished in boom times, have resorted to cutting staff and shelving construction projects.

The swings are part of what has been a volatile decade for endowments, which are managed as permanent assets and are especially crucial for large private schools that don’t rely on state funding.

The average rate of return on endowments soared as high as 17 percent as recently as 2006-07; endowments on average posted annual gains of 4 percent during the up-and-down 2000s.

Schools spend 4 to 5 percent of their endowments annually on student aid, faculty, research and other costs.

Of the universities with supersized endowments, Harvard, the largest, suffered the greatest losses — 30 percent, from $36.5 billion to $25.6 billion in 2008-09. That loss is larger than the entire endowments of all but four other schools.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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