Tulane University is quietly soliciting donations for an ambitious fundraising campaign that aims to raise at least $1 billion, some of which may be used to improve financial aid and build new student housing and another campus dining hall.

“We are clearly talking to many people who are very close to the institution about our goals,” said Tulane President Michael Fitts, who is wrapping up his first semester at the helm of the private university of 13,500 students. “I fully expect to publicly launch the campaign within two years.”

When Fitts was introduced early this year as Tulane’s 15th president, his longtime colleagues first credited his vision for integrating the law curriculum at the top-ranked Penn Law, where he was the dean, with other studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the private Ivy League school. His fundraising credentials typically came up next: Under his watch, Penn Law raised a record $180 million during a six-year campaign, which largely went toward improving financial aid, hiring faculty and expanding academic offerings.

Now, many at Tulane are hopeful that his past success will continue. The school raised more than $700 million during its last major campaign, which ended in 2008. That effort began just months before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.

The three-year push helped Tulane’s total endowment pass the lofty $1 billion mark. But six years later, a billion bucks just isn’t what it used to be. Tulane’s endowment is less than those of all but one of nine schools it considers its peer institutions: the University of Miami, which last year had about $778 million. Duke led the pack with $6 billion, followed by Emory University, at $5.8 billion, and Washington University in St. Louis, which had $5.7 billion.

Several of those schools also have launched major fundraising initiatives in recent years. Duke, for one, is campaigning to raise $3.25 billion by 2017. And last year, Emory wrapped up a drive that raised $1.7 billion in seven years.

Harvard leads the way

Across U.S. higher education, Harvard University’s $32 billion endowment as of last year is far and away the biggest, according to a breakdown by the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Yale University was No. 2, with nearly $21 billion.

As the cost of going to college has risen sharply over the past decade, education administrators and others who study charitable giving say a healthy endowment has become an essential resource for schools wishing to expand programs, update campus facilities, improve services and provide financial aid to eligible students.

At Tulane this year, the projected true cost of attending classes full time is about $63,000, though the school contends that merit- and need-based scholarships, on average, cover about 40 percent of the price tag.

Having a large endowment “is not extra. It is not the cherry on top. It’s really a strategic resource for these places,” said Arthur Criscillis, a partner of Alexander Haas, a capital campaign consulting firm in Georgia.

In turn, it’s become critical for colleges to continuously fundraise to “secure the kind of resources that institutions need to do more of what they already do well, to do some new things that they haven’t done that would really benefit students or faculty, or to help them shore up and strengthen some programs that may be in need of that,” he said.

“There is certainly some magic when you hit that $1 billion level — wow, a billion dollars! — but in virtually every instance, when institutions are moving to do a campaign of that size, they’ve done the kind of things that have positioned them well to be able to envision that,” Criscillis added.

Resonating with donors

This fall, Loyola University announced its own campaign to drum up $100 million for updating facilities, investing in athletics, funding more scholarships and creating a new home for its Jesuit Center.

By the time of the announcement, the drive already had raised about $45 million in a little-publicized “leadership phase” in which the university sought a modest number of large donations to build momentum, including $13 million from New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson’s charitable foundation. The push is Loyola’s first major fundraising effort in more than a decade.

Already, Tulane has been counting donations received this year toward the upcoming campaign, Fitts said, tallying about $126 million in 2014, a record for the school.

Fitts called the $1 billion mark “a moving target,” and that seemingly heady figure may grow before the effort is formally announced, he said.

Tulane’s task got a little easier last month, thanks to a nearly $15 million gift from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation to establish the Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking.

Faculty, students and researchers from a variety of disciplines at Tulane will work together at the center to solve problems facing society in areas such as the environment, education and health care. The gift was the largest that the foundation has awarded, according to its chairwoman, Phyllis Taylor, who is a member of Tulane’s board.

Having campaign projects or goals that can excite potential donors is key to a major campaign, experts say.

“You rarely see a featured objective in a campaign to be building of a parking garage, yet you may need one desperately,” Criscillis said. “There are some things that an institution really needs but it won’t have in a campaign. It will have to find another way to finance them simply because they’re probably not going to resonate with donors.”

‘The most national university’

Some of the money that’s ultimately raised during Tulane’s campaign will be used to bolster its academic offerings and integrate them with other programs, much like what Fitts did at Penn Law.

“We want to really expand the academic programs a lot and deepen the number of joint programs between the schools,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “We want to expand that. Tulane has the ability to be setting the national standard in integrating education across schools and in research areas. We want to expand those, and we want to develop the campus.”

Plans may include building another dormitory and dining hall in order to house more students on campus.

“In many respects, we’re the most national university in the country,” Fitts said, stressing that Tulane has the highest proportion of students who come from more than 300 miles away. “We bring these students from all over and they’ll learn from each other, so we want them to live together, to eat together, to study together.”

Six years since its last major fundraising drive ended, Fitts said, Tulane’s focus is where it should be: preparing to launch the next one.

“It helps if you’re in a location like Silicon Valley, where you stumble over billionaires everywhere,” he said. “But a billion-dollar campaign ­— at least a billion-dollar campaign — would be very important for us, in terms of what it will enable us to do academically.”

Even now, Tulane can boast visible marks of success that other local universities — some of which are cutting jobs and programs — can only envy. For the first time in decades, college football returned to the Tulane campus this year at Yulman Stadium, the school’s new $73 million, 30,000-seat stadium. And this fall, Tulane opened a new dormitory, the 256-bed Barbara Greenbaum House at Zimpel Street and Broadway.

“We had double the number of people from the year before,” Fitts said about this year’s homecoming events, crediting the increase to the new stadium. “It’s energized the campus. It’s energized New Orleans. It’s been very positive in terms of the sense of community on campus.”

Reaching young graduates

As impressive as a billion-dollar target may sound, some experts who study large-scale fundraising say the benchmark is becoming almost commonplace at larger schools across the U.S.

“The economy has improved, and as people feel more financially secure, they feel more comfortable making charitable donations at even larger amounts than maybe they would’ve done before,” said Tim Seiler, director of the Fund Raising School at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

However, as recent college graduates finish school with more debt than ever before, they’re more likely to put off charitable giving while paying off their often-extensive loans, according to Seiler. That could, in time, spell trouble for schools, because aging alumni who are comfortable sending their alma mater money year after year won’t be around forever. “I think what you see most often is schools are trying to determine the best way to first get young alumni involved with the university in a meaningful way,” he said. “And then the solicitation of gifts might come later. So it’s early involvement and continuous involvement over time to prepare the people to be asked to contribute financially.”

Experts say colleges can have an advantage over other charities when it comes to attracting donations, particularly if their alumni have fond memories of their time on campus.

“In some instances, alumni think back and believe that their degree has led them to many successes that they’ve had professionally or even personally, so there’s some sense to the idea of giving back,” Seiler said.

From Fitts’ perspective, that’s all tied together.

“Fundraising is, in the end, about what you’re fundraising for. It’s about Tulane and what we can do at Tulane, so I think the school has a really unique and special opportunity,” he said. “It’s got a very dedicated alumni group, and it’s got the ability to really be a leader over the next decade nationally.”

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.