Harvard University announced Saturday that it has launched a campaign to raise $6.5 billion by 2018 — a record goal for higher education — and plans to use the money to expand the campus in Allston, enhance engineering programs, and renovate aging undergraduate houses.
The amount is more than double what Harvard collected in its last capital campaign, which was completed in 1999. It would top the record for a single college campaign held by Stanford University, which amassed $6.23 billion in a five-year effort that ended in 2011.
Harvard already has raised $2.8 billion toward its new goal over the past two years, representing pledges and gifts from more than 90,000 alumni and others during a “quiet phase’’ of the campaign, university officials said.
“We launch the Harvard campaign at a moment when higher education is being challenged to reinvent itself,’’ Harvard President Drew Faust said in a statement. “We embrace this opportunity for a campaign that aims to do more than merely extend or reinforce long-standing strength and eminence.’’
With the additional money, officials said Harvard planned to allocate 45 percent to support teaching and research; 25 percent for financial aid and student activities; 20 percent for maintenance and building projects; and the remaining 10 percent for a host of other programs.
The multibillion-dollar expansion into Allston involves a decade-long plan to build 1.4 million square feet of new construction and renovate existing buildings for research facilities and housing, among other uses.
The plan to renovate the campus’s historic housing for students along the Charles River is already underway, and the university has been hiring additional faculty and adding lab space, among other things, for its relatively new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which is slated to move to Allston.
University officials said the money will be used to expand Harvard’s international presence as well as its online education program, called HarvardX, which offers some popular classes to thousands of students around the world.
The campaign will also support a fledging program to produce low-cost energy in developing countries and to expand research into brain diseases, stem cells, neuroscience, the environment, and programs to support the arts and humanities.
“The Harvard campaign is critical to the university’s ability to fund important priorities going forward, but it is also an opportunity to redefine Harvard and higher education more broadly,’’ James F. Rothenberg, Harvard’s treasurer and co-chairman of the campaign, said in a statement.
University officials said the 2008 financial downturn had delayed plans to launch the latest campaign.
Harvard’s campaign follows major money-raising efforts at other top universities.
In addition to Stanford’s campaign, Yale announced in 2011 that it had raised nearly $3.9 billion during a five-year campaign. Cornell is well under way in its quest to take in $4.75 billion by 2015.
The University of Southern California in 2011 announced a $6 billion capital campaign over seven years.
“To remain competitive, universities have to launch campaigns like this,’’ said Roger Benjamin, president of the Council for Aid to Education, a New York nonprofit that monitors philanthropy to universities. “If they don’t, they’re not going to remain at the top of theoretical and applied research in the world.’’
He said he wasn’t surprised to learn Harvard would seek to exceed all the other campaigns, but he called the growing money-raising efforts “worrisome.’’
“We’re moving toward a two-tiered research university system, where the publics can no longer be competitive with top private institutions,’’ he said. “Salary differences between top public and private universities are already substantial.’’
He also noted how the sciences tend to get a disproportionate amount of the money. “You end up with complete mismatches between the status of professors in the humanities and professors in the sciences, who are essentially entrepreneurs.’’
Harvard is already the world’s wealthiest university, with an endowment that had grown last year to nearly $31 billion.
In a conference call with reporters, university officials said the increased emphasis on science does not mean Harvard is trying to compete with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They said the new science programs will remain part of the university’s broader liberal arts offerings and seek to complement what’s being done at MIT.
“We are not trying to create another version of MIT,’’ Harvard Provost Alan Garber said.
Garber also defended asking people to give money to Harvard, which draws 5 percent of its operating budget from its massive endowment.
“When you give support to Harvard, you can be confident that it will be supporting the work of faculty who are addressing the biggest challenges facing the world today,’’ he said.