Stanford last year became the first university to raise more than $1 billion in a single year, according to the Council for Aid to Education's annual college fundraising survey.
Partly because of large donations from entrepreneurial alumni who have made their fortunes in Silicon Valley, Stanford has been the top fundraiser for eight straight years.
Earlier this month, the university in Palo Alto announced that its five-year capital campaign, which ended Dec. 31, had brought in a record-breaking $6.23 billion far exceeding its original goal of $4.3 billion and surpassing by more than $2 billion any other single higher-education campaign.
"Stanford has been doing a remarkable job," said Ann Kaplan, director of the council's report. "By any standard, it's been amazing. They have some very big ideas, and they're good at capturing people's imagination, thinking about what they can do and what they could be."
The report, released Wednesday, found that U.S. colleges and universities raised $31 billion last year, or 2.3 percent more than the previous year, just slightly ahead of the inflation rate. That is still slightly less than the $31.6 billion record, set in 2008, before the financial crisis cut deeply into charitable giving.
"What happens in higher-ed fundraising does tend to mirror what goes on in the economy as a whole," Kaplan said. "We haven't come out of this recession as fast as some previous ones. The will to make the gifts is there; now we just need the value of the underlying assets, of individuals and foundations, to come back."
After Stanford, the fundraising sums drop sharply: Harvard raised $650 million; Yale, $544 million; the University of Southern California, $492 million; and Columbia, $400 million.
Together, the top 10 universities raised $5.3 billion of the $31 billion total.
Among public universities, the University of California, Berkeley, was the leading fundraiser, bringing in $405 million.
Stanford's $1.035 billion in gifts last year comes to about $56,000 for each of the university's 18,500 undergraduate and graduate students.
According to the council's report, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, a specialized health institution, raised the largest amount per enrolled student, $590,719.
Of the 20 institutions that raised the most per student, five are medical schools and five are schools of theology. Deep Springs College, a private two-year college in California, is fourth on the list, which also includes two private liberal arts colleges, Hillsdale College in Michigan and Amherst College in Massachusetts. The remaining six institutions are private research universities: Stanford, Yale, California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and Harvard.
The report found that in fiscal 2012, contributions for current operations increased 6.2 percent, while gifts for capital purposes, like endowments and buildings, declined 3.2 percent.
After Stanford's fundraising success, other institutions have upped their ante: Columbia, which announced a $4 billion campaign in 2006, has already collected more than that and raised its goal to $5 billion by December. USC has started a seven-year, $6 billion capital campaign.
It is a truism of fundraising, Kaplan said, that a rising tide lifts all boats.