American higher education is a complex, decentralized, and interlocking network of institutions that provide education to a disparate group of learners. Historically, many of the fundamentals build around an applicant cohort of 18- to 22-year olds. The demographics of the 21st century predict that this group will not be able to support a robust pool of potential students into the future.
For many colleges, the choice is to expand the pool, both geographically and to better reflect shifting demographics. College administrators, seeking an admitted student population that mirrors the ethnic, gender, race, and religious characteristics of the country, generally work to open fresh applicant streams from among historically disenfranchised groups.
It is new territory for many schools in which campus culture supports these efforts intellectually but wrestles with the cost, preparedness, and internal dynamics of the cultural change required to maintain recruitment standards and retention and graduation rates.
Student Recruitment, Retention Costs Growing
Those colleges relying upon the 18-22 year old pool of applicants have little choice. From a financial perspective, these institutions have always relied upon wealthy, full-pay families to provide much of the revenue to support financial aid for needy and deserving students.
The problem, now growing into a crisis over the past twenty years, has been that the recruitment and retention costs for each class now exceed the capacity of the institution to balance full-pay revenue with the needs of less fortunate students.
College Discount Rates Sap Schools’ Financial Strength
A dramatic rise in unfunded aid – translated into the college’s discount rate – has sapped the financial strength of many institutions. The hard truth is that a college operates with fixed costs – heavily tied to labor, land, debt, and financial aid – that permits little left in an annual budget for discretionary moves that might offset these alarming trends. At a growing number of institutions the discount rate is now over 70 percent.
What industry – or any financial enterprise – can operate on 30 percent or less of the revenue that it advertises as its sticker price for the product that it delivers?
Colleges’ High Sticker Price Make Affordability Arguments Nearly Impossible
Another problem vexing colleges is the sticker price. Trinity College (CT) just announced a comprehensive fee (tuition, fees, room and board) of $71,660 for next year. Trinity is an outstanding college where students receive an exceptional education. But the optics look terrible for those colleges and universities that cross the Maginot Line of $70,000 per annum.
It is difficult and sometimes impossible to argue affordability when the sticker price is confused or equated with with the bill that students and their families actually pay. Does a high sticker price limit the size of a potential pool regardless of a college’s policy on generous financial aid?
There are at least three approaches to combat this trend:
The first is to increase the financial aid budget to offset increases in a college’s sticker price. This seldom works, especially over the long term. It is difficult to be less generous to successive classes without an enrollment strategy that matches financial aid to changes in enrollment practice. The most nimble colleges have a well-delineated financial aid model that links their enrollment practices to where they want to be in out years. But most institutions seldom follow through, effectively decreasing net tuition revenue over the long term and raising the discount rate higher.
A second option is to shift the financial burden to students, generally in the form of increased loans. The problem is that many students see debt as a responsible way to pay for an education, whatever the level of debt incurred. The result is that many students unskilled in handling debt become subject to it. The result is disastrous and often leads to higher default rates among students, many of whom fail to graduate, who work at jobs that do not permit them to repay debt that they did not understand when they agreed to its terms.
A third option is to rely on support from states and the federal government. The trends work against students here. Government support for student aid and debt relief has been – put kindly – spotty at best. Further, governments at all levels are losing their discretionary ability as pressing fiscal and political priorities affect their discretion. There may be a point at which discretion and government regulations intersect with hard choices ahead for those who seek state and federal aid.
What’s the alternative?
America’s colleges and universities should assume that any solution must be organic and come from within the higher education community. The discount rate at many colleges is now approaching a tipping point.
It’s not that colleges and universities face massive, wholesale closures. It’s more like death by a thousand cuts in which closures increase steadily but without a classic catastrophic event that shakes the college and university community to produce the next generation of operating changes necessary to survive.
It feels a little like being the lobster in the pot brought to a boil. When you fully recognize the danger, it’s already too late. The task ahead is to plan for an orderly review of how to prepare for an uncertain future and how best to pay for it.