Stanford University was the big winner for 2015.
courtesy Stanford University
By Kaitlin Mulhere
January 27, 2016

Charitable donations to colleges hit a record $40.3 billion in 2015. And $11.56 billion, or about 29% of the total, went to just 20 of them.

Donors gave 7.6 percent more to colleges in fiscal year 2015 than they did the year before, according to the annual Voluntary Support of Education survey by the Council for Aid to Education.

There’s been jostling among the spots on the list in recent years but little actual turnover in the colleges that appear. Unsurprisingly, most all of the universities at the top of the donations list also top the list for largest endowment size in a separate report published today.

Stanford reclaimed the top spot with a record-setting $1.6 billion fundraising year. Stanford and Harvard—which came in second—are the only universities to top $1 billion in a single year of fundraising, a ceiling Stanford broke a few years ago. Five of the colleges on the list are public. The rest are well-known private schools.

There were eight gifts of $100 million or more last year, for a total of $1.44 billion—which went to just four universities. Some of those large donations were criticized in the media by people who suggested wealthy donors could do more good by giving their money to less wealthy colleges that educate a greater share of the population.

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That criticism doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on the donors who choose to give so-called mega gifts, says Diana Newman, a consultant who specializes in endowments and fundraising.

“I have a sense mega gifts are coming from people who see these as investments in the future rather than charitable giving,” she said. “They’re looking at what university could really make an impact.”

In general, more than a third of donations to any college will come from 12 large gifts, according to the report. Non-alumni gave 23% more to universities last year. The amount of donations to colleges from their alumni grew 10%, but the share of alumni participating dropped. That’s in part because there are more alumni on record now, since technology has made it easier to track people down.


Those who criticize some of the wealthiest universities for amassing huge endowments while students take on more debt to pay for college might be pleased to hear that donations marked for current operations increased 13% while donations for capital purposes, which includes endowments, property, and buildings, were flat. Yet the lack of year-over-year growth in capital donations was largely due to the huge growth (23%) in gifts to endowments back in 2014, according to the report.

The report predicts that donations to colleges will increase again next year, but modestly, due to the economic environment and lackluster stock market performance.

College (Money Best Colleges rank) Total raised
Stanford University (1) $1.63 billion
Harvard University (6) $1.05 billion
University of Southern California (101) $653.03 million
University of California-San Francisco (380) $608.58 million
Cornell University (34) $590.64 million
Johns Hopkins University (85) $582.68 million
Columbia University (28) $552.68 million
Princeton University (3) $549.84 million
Northwestern University (89) $536.83 million
University of Pennsylvania (12) $517.20 million
University of California-Los Angeles (26) $473.21 million
Duke University (21) $472.01 million
University of Washington (56) $447.02 million
University of Chicago (127) $443.79 million
Yale University (21) $440.81 million
New York University (354) $439.66 million
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (3) $439.40 million
University of Michigan (18) $394.31 million
University of Notre Dame (44) $379.87 million
University of California-Berkeley (9) $366.12 million

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