Harvard reports that the value of its endowment has declined $8 billion between the end of June 2008 through October 2008. That would make Harvard's endowment worth 22% less than at the end of June, or $26.9 billion -- but it probably has further to fall thanks to illiquid assets like private equity interests. Meanwhile, Harvard and its peers could be in trouble because fewer people will be able to afford college given the market crash. That will mean college administrators are facing some tough choices.
Harvard is responding to the decline in its endowment by taking a "hard look" at staffing levels and compensation. It is forecasting a 30% drop for its endowment ending in June 2009, which would bring it to $25.8 billion, down another $1 billion. While this strikes me as optimistic, it does suggest the extent of the damage and the challenges Harvard and its peers face.
The options for universities are dwindling. A study suggests that tuition has risen 439% since 1982 while median family incomes have increased only 137% during that period. If tuition continues to rise at that rate, few families will be able to afford college. With the student loan market in dire straits and incomes likely to fall further due to layoffs, the only way for colleges to attract top students who can't pay will be to cut tuition even more on the lower income families while making up the difference by raising tuition for the wealthiest ones.
With endowments shrinking, there really won't be an option of using that endowment income to make up the difference. And in order to keep from losing money on operations, colleges will need to cut their costs drastically while maintaining teaching quality. This is something that colleges have little experience doing.