updated 2/21/2007 9:55:42 PM ET 2007-02-22T02:55:42

Prosperous alumni helped make 2006 a record fundraising year for colleges and universities, which hauled in an all-time high of $28 billion — a 9.4 percent jump from the year before.

There were increases across the board, but as usual it was the already wealthy who fared best. Stanford's $911 million was the most ever collected by a single university, and raised the staggering possibility of a billion-dollar fundraising year in the not-too-distant future.

"There were a set of ideas and a set of initiatives that the university is undertaking that people wanted to invest in," said Martin Shell, Stanford's vice president for development. "This is an unbelievably generous response from an unbelievably philanthropic set of alumni, parents and friends."

Nationally, donations from alumni rose 18.3 percent from 2005, according to new figures being released Wednesday by the Council for Aid to Education. Alumni donations account for about 30 percent of giving to higher education. Giving from other groups, such as corporations and foundations, increased by much smaller amounts.

Survey director Ann Kaplan said the strong economy played a role, but universities also were asking more aggressively as part of formal fundraising campaigns.

Colleges "are making a good case for support," Kaplan said. "The level at which they can receive contributions will have something to do with the economy, but they have to be out there asking for it."

Stanford had about 300 full-time fundraising employees asking for money in 2006, finishing up one formal campaign early in the year and starting another. It was a demonstration of how fundraising campaigns, like political ones, now run virtually full-time.

Still, the timing did give Stanford's annual numbers an artificial boost, because more money tends to be collected at the beginning and end of such campaigns.

Gains for small schools, too
The CAE survey contains good news for a number of schools with small endowments that saw large percentage jumps, such as Wagner College in New York and the University of La Verne in California — both of which raised about $10 million and more than doubled 2005's collections.

But in absolute dollars, the wealthiest institutions still dominate — and are expanding their lead. Last year, the top 10 fundraising universities collected 16.3 percent of all gifts, or $7.2 billion, compared to 14.7 percent in 2005. The top 20 institutions accounted for more than a quarter of all fundraising.

Stanford was followed by Harvard, which raised $595 million, then Yale ($433 million) and the University of Pennsylvania ($409 million). All of the biggest fundraising schools are large research institutions with medical schools that typically attract private support for research from well beyond their alumni base.

Rounding out the top 10 were Cornell, Southern California, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Duke and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which was the top fundraiser among public universities, raising $326 million.

The elite fundraisers typically get money from a higher percentage of alumni, but the real difference comes from a small number of mega-gifts. About 40 percent of Stanford's total came from just 10 donations, Shell said, the largest of which was $100 million from alumnus and real estate developer John Arrillaga.

The university's latest campaign aims to raise $4.3 billion over five years. Stanford charges $43,361 this year for tuition plus room and board but says it provides full financial aid for students who need it, and does not charge families with annual income under $45,000.

Stanford's endowment, valued at $15.3 billion last June, kicks in about 18 percent of the university's $3.2 billion operating budget. Typically, voluntary support provides for less than 10 percent of expenditures on higher education, according to CAE.

Stanford's total was about 50 percent higher than in 2005, and because of the overlapping campaigns, probably won't be matched this year.

But Shell says that, someday, a billion-dollar year is not out of the question.

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