Buffett Chides College for Not Cutting Tuition as Endowment Grew

  • He got enrollment numbers wrong, Grinnell College says
  • Buffett was a trustee at the Iowa school for four decades

At the annual meeting for his Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Warren Buffett criticized a college that expanded its endowment but didn’t cut tuition or boost enrollment.

“I was the trustee of a college that saw the endowment go from $8 million to over a billion, and I didn’t see the tuition come down, and I didn’t see the number of students go up,” Buffett said April 30 in a conversation with Charles Munger, the company’s vice chairman, at the event in Omaha, Nebraska.

While he didn’t name the school, it’s clear to officials at Grinnell College which institution he’s talking about. The liberal arts school in Iowa, with a $1.8 billion endowment as of June 2015, said Buffett’s facts about enrollment aren’t correct.

‘Most Appreciative’

“Grinnell College is most appreciative of the service Warren Buffett has provided to the college,” Lisa Lacher, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail when asked by Bloomberg about Buffett’s comments. “We do, however, have data to share that contradict some of his assertions.”

Buffett, who couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, joined Grinnell’s board in 1968 through his connection with Joe Rosenfield, a Grinnell alumnus and trustee. Buffett, who also chaired the investment committee, remained on the board until he was named a life trustee in 1987, resigning from that post in 2011, the school said. Berkshire, based in Omaha, is located about three hours west of the school by car.

The fund’s value reached $1.5 billion in 2011, up from $10.9 million in 1968, according to Grinnell. 

“Enrollment did go up during these years,” Lacher said. Total enrollment was 1,693 in 2011, up about 60 percent from 1968. The number of students reached 1,705 in 2015.

Architect of Growth

Buffett was right that tuition hasn’t decreased. But Lacher said that “growth in the endowment and endowment spending has enabled the college to make substantial increases in institutional financial aid and increase the number of Pell-eligible students while maintaining a need-blind admissions policy and meeting 100 percent of the demonstrated financial need of domestic students.”

Tuition, fees and room and board are almost $61,000 for the 2016-2017 school year, according to Grinnell’s website.

Buffett was the architect of Grinnell’s endowment growth, George Drake, who was president of Grinnell during a portion of Buffett’s tenure as a trustee, said in an e-mail. “None of this would be possible without the large endowment built by Warren Buffett and his close friend and mentor, Joe Rosenfield.”

The wealthiest colleges have come under scrutiny for their record endowment values. Two congressional committees sent inquiries to the 56 richest private schools, including Grinnell, with questions ranging from their financial aid spending to how much they pay to manage their funds. Grinnell is especially dependent on the endowment, as more than half the operating budget comes from annual returns.

Big Numbers

“When you read the figures on endowment of the big schools, and some of them have really gotten up in the big numbers, the main objective of the people running the endowment is to have the endowment grow larger, and that will be ever thus,” Buffett said at the meeting.

Grinnell posted a 1 percent investment gain on its endowment in fiscal 2015, one of the worst performers among funds with at least $1 billion in assets. The small gain was in contrast to previous year, when the endowment returned 20.4 percent.

For fiscal 2015, the total value of the fund declined 2 percent as the college tapped the endowment for operating expenses. Grinnell was among at least a dozen schools in the 2015 fiscal year whose endowments spent more than they earned, including Duke University and Pomona College.

“If we only made payouts in positive years that produced over 4 percent returns, then we would only expect to make payouts every two-thirds of the time,” Lacher said.

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