Small College Endowment Outperforms Harvard by Indexing

Bill Abt, who oversees the $120 million endowment of Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, “has returns that beat Harvard’s $37 billion endowment and most others,” according to a recent article in Bloomberg.

“In the 10 years through the most recent college fiscal year, ended on June 30, 2017,” the article reports, “the former beer company executive racked up a 6.2 percent average annual return, according to the school.” Based on data from the National Association of College and University Business Officers, the fund’s performance is better than 90 percent of its peers—it also surpasses that of Harvard (the nation’s largest) which averaged just 4.4 percent a year in the same period.

According to the article, Abt’s approach has been “more pedestrian: mostly low-cost, market-tracking index funds from Vanguard Group Inc., the same funds used by legions of do-it-yourself individual investors.” Through the Vanguard funds, the article reports, Carthage’s endowment is about 90 percent publicly traded stock. The average endowment, it says, is more diversified, with about half invested in alternatives such as hedge funds, private equity and venture capital. But the diversification hasn’t always “helped soften the blow from stock market slumps” the article notes. Abt says his endowment, “which is essentially investing in perpetuity, can wait out swings of the market.” It provides only 3 percent to 5 percent of Carthage’s annual budget, compared with between 3 and 5 percent at Harvard.