The Yale endowment overcame the slumping financial markets to post a single-digit gain for the fiscal year that ended June 30, although it was outperformed by Harvard’s fund, the News has learned.

The exact return is expected to be announced later this month. But in a letter sent to donors Friday and obtained by the News, University President Richard Levin said Yale’s endowment now stands at nearly $23 billion, up from $22.5 billion at the end of the previous fiscal year.

Levin’s disclosure came as Harvard announced Friday its endowment had posted an 8.6-percent return in the last fiscal year, rising to $36.9 billion, the most of any university. Its money managers said that return significantly outperformed internal projections as well as outside benchmarks, exceeding the performance of 95 percent of the 165 large institutional funds tracked by the Trust Universe Comparison Service, for example.

While it earned a positive return, the Yale endowment did not perform that well, a University official said Sunday, speaking on the condition of anonymity while discussing confidential investment results.

“Don’t expect us to top Harvard this year,” the official said.

Yet few are likely to complain when the University announces its official results. Harvard and Yale’s positive returns came in spite of a year “marked by periods of intense market turmoil,” as Harvard’s investment managers put it in their annual letter. The subprime-mortgage crisis and the broader economic slowdown have driven the equity markets sharply downward over the last year.

For a comparison, the median return in that period among the funds tracked by the Trust Universe Comparison Service was negative 4.4 percent. And investments in the stock market fared even worse; one widely observed benchmark, the S&P 500 Index, registered a return of negative 13.1 percent in the year ending June 30.

But Harvard’s announcement of its investment performance Friday sheds new light on just how its fund and some of the other largest university endowments managed to weather the economic climate in the last year and stay out of the red.

Just as Harvard and Yale managed to post gains, Princeton President Shirley Tilghman suggested last week in remarks at a Senate Finance Committee roundtable that Princeton also squeezed by with single-digit gains.

Harvard, for one, did it in part because of the diversity of its holdings, its Friday letter indicates. That strategy is a hallmark of venerated Yale investments czar David Swensen, who has been hailed for diversifying the Yale endowment to include alternative investments such as venture capital, oil, gas and timber rather than the standard stocks and bonds that it comprised a generation ago.

That has become a model for other schools to follow as one strategy to insulate themselves against the volatility of the stock market.

Indeed, Harvard lost money this year on traditional equities, with its investments in domestic equities falling 12.7 percent and foreign equities 12.1 percent. But such investments comprised only a quarter of the school’s total portfolio.

Another quarter was devoted to so-called “real assets,” including commodities, timber, farmland and real estate, which performed much better. Those holdings earned a return of 35.8 percent, helping to drive the endowment’s value upward even as the equity market plunged.

Yale is likely to benefit similarly. Real assets comprise the largest chunk of the University’s fund, with a target allocation of 28 percent, according to the Yale’s 2007 report on its endowment.

Over the last 30 years, Yale’s holdings in real assets have posted an average annual return of 17.8 percent, according to the report, helping to drive Yale’s endowment upward to the $22.5 billion it reached last year, second only to Harvard’s.

But while Yale, Harvard, Princeton and others have similarly embraced alternative investments, many other smaller investors have not done so to such a large extent, helping to explain, in part, why Harvard’s fund outperformed so many other funds this year. Yale’s real-asset allocation, for instance, is nearly three times the average university’s allocation to such investments, according to data from the research firm Cambridge Associates.

Still, while Yale and Harvard both remained in the black in the last fiscal year, the golden age of record returns appears to be over — or at least on hold. Last year, Yale’s endowment posted a nation-leading 28-percent return and gained a record $5 billion; over the previous decade, it had posted an average annual return of 17.8 percent, more than two percentage points higher than any other large university fund in the country.

Those massive gains helped fuel questions in Washington, raised most strongly by Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, about whether the wealthiest universities have been unnecessarily hoarding money when some of it could be used to lower tuition and provide more financial aid.

That discussion may very well be tempered by the dramatically smaller returns that will be announced over the next month and, perhaps, in coming years. Harvard’s managers warned that they remain “very cautious” in their expectations for the next few years.

“The last ten years have seen periods of extraordinary investment results,” they wrote. “In light of recent market stress and dislocations, however, we are keenly aware that returns produced in the next few years may fall well short of these robust historical levels.”

But Harvard’s endowment will at least have one thing going for it: It will be under the guide of an Eli. Jane Mendillo ’80 SOM ’84, who got her start in the Yale Investments Office and went on to oversee the endowment at Wellesley College, took office as president and chief executive officer of the Harvard Management Company on July 1.