WASHINGTON — Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman appeared to suggest Monday that her school’s endowment posted a small but positive return in fiscal year 2008, giving more hope that Yale may also have been able to avoid losing money despite the rough economic climate.

Speaking at a roundtable discussion here on the subject of endowment spending, Tilghman stressed the variability in investment performance as one of many reasons any government-mandated payout rate would hurt America’s universities.

Though it has soared in recent years, back in the first two years of her presidency Princeton’s endowment posted only a 2 percent return, Tilghman said.

“This year, of course, we’re back almost where we started when I became president in the beginning,” she said.

Neither Yale, Harvard nor Princeton have released their endowment returns, but Tilghman’s comment is the latest suggestion that some of the largest university endowments — Yale’s certainly among them — may have weathered the financial storm in the fiscal year ending June 30 better than some may have expected.

Last month, news reports citing anonymous sources said Harvard’s endowment had posted a 7 to 9 percent return in that same period, despite the fact that the S&P 500 index dropped 14.9 percent during that time.

Princeton’s endowment is managed by a protégé of Yale investments czar David Swensen, who pioneered the practice of alternative investments as a way to preserve growth even in times when the stock market sours.

Economists have suggested that strategy may have allowed Yale and other schools to avoid having lost money in the last year despite the sagging economy.

Yale is expected to release its endowment performance at the end of September.

Its $22.5 billion endowment is second-largest in the country, above Stanford’s $17.2 billion and Princeton’s $15.8 billion but trailing Harvard’s $34.9 billion.