A hotly debated topic making the rounds in higher education now is whether American colleges and universities – public and private – face a round of mergers and acquisitions over the next several years.
There are a number of reasons that the discussion of this topic had gained momentum.
Tuition discount rates are creating revenue squeeze for colleges
First, many colleges, especially small private colleges, are seeing their tuition discounts — now at 50% on average for every tuition dollar received — rise while their net tuition revenue remains flat or continues to fall. In fact, there are some colleges where the tuition discount now approaches 70 percent.
Financial health of many schools is questionable
Second, federal composite credit scores, which reflect the overall relative financial health of institutions along a scale from -1 to 3, have shown a good number of institutions to be in questionable financial health. A score greater than or equal to 1.5 indicates the institution is considered financially responsible. Colleges with scores of less than 1.5 but greater than or equal to 1.0 are considered financially responsible, but require additional oversight. These schools are subject to cash monitoring and other participation requirements.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 177 degree-granting private colleges failed the U.S. Education Department’s financial-responsibility test, which seeks to quantify the financial health of proprietary and nonprofit institutions, for the 2014-15 academic year. That’s 18 more than failed the year before.
Further, of the 177 failing institutions, 112 (63%) are nonprofit and the rest are for-profit. For the previous year, 58 percent of the 159 failing institutions were nonprofit.
Third, Moody’s has revised its outlook for U.S. four-year higher education to stable from negative, reflecting the expectation that the sector’s business environment will neither erode significantly nor improve materially in the next 12-18 months. Until this latest ratings change, higher education had received a negative rating since January 2013.
Moody’s rating suggests that higher education is at best treading water and not in a robust recovery from the impact of the Great Recession.
Fourth, there is growing anecdotal evidence of a struggle over financial health. Nearly four of ten private colleges reported that they still had available seats in their upcoming admissions class last year. On the public side, some states are considering closing or merging small and underperforming (often rural) campuses. The number of students entering community colleges is also dropping. Years of underfunding public sector institutions have produced problems like the collapsing infrastructure and structural deficit issues at respected institutions like UMass Boston.
In addition, much of the public discourse over projected closures like Sweet Briar College, failed merger attempts, and persistent rumors of financial distress continue to feed the higher education gossip circuit.
The cumulative effect is to pit trustees, staff, faculty, students, and alumni against one another as the blame game over failed efforts at transparency and worse indications of poor stewardship shake higher education’s foundations.
Free tuition at public schools could be detrimental to private institutions
The newest wrinkle addresses the likely impact that variations in the free public tuition proposals might have in the 35 states where such proposals have arisen. In New York, for example, a number of private college and university presidents with whom I have spoken recently wondered what will happen when the state uses the program to encourage New York State families to vote with their feet for four-year public colleges. The impact on the state’s private and community colleges could be detrimental, lasting and severe.
There’s little question that American higher education is now going through a period of chaos and uncertainty that is upsetting the otherwise glacial pace by which higher education has historically evolved.
But history also tells us that there have been at least two other periods characterized by the same level of disruption. In each case, higher education grew and adapted but did not suffer from an agonizing collapse. It is possible to imagine the possibility and to see the potential amidst the chaos, even if some of it is self-inflicted.
Disruption in higher education may spark creative, positive change
And perhaps this is ultimately the point. Higher education will need to change the way that it operates. Leadership at all levels must modernize and re-think financial models, operating principles, and governing structures. It is likely that American colleges and universities will not be able to rely on traditional state and federal partnerships in the way that they have in the past.
It is essential that institutions begin to imagine broad cooperative efforts that cut across rigid but now outmoded divisions as “public” and “private,” research and teaching, and two-, four-, and graduate-level institutions. Education must be a seamless, lifelong pathway.
The most important change will be to build an aggressive, unapologetic defense of what higher education represents, why what it does is important, and how its colleges and universities contribute in unique ways to American society.
Disruption makes anything possible. Now is the best time to think about how to manage this disruption rather than simply react to what’s coming.
The results of the most recent Tuition Discounting Study from the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) are telling and worrisome. The study, released last week, examined how much colleges and universities awarded students in scholarship and grants and how deep tuition discounting has become.
The NACUBO study found that the average institutional tuition discount rate for first-time, full-time students hit an estimated 49.1 percent in 2016-2017, up from 48 percent the previous year. The discount rate was highest at small institutions, where the first-time, full-time freshman rate was 50.9 percent for 2016-2017. And perhaps most troubling, more than 25 % of the institutions surveyed have rates well above 50 percent.
Why Does College Tuition Discounting Matter?
Why does this matter?
As Inside Higher Education’s Rick Seltzer points out, the tuition discount rate is defined as institutional grant dollars as a percentage of gross tuition and fee revenue. Translated, a discount rate of 50% means that fifty cents of every tuition dollar never makes it to the college’s bottom line because it is dedicated immediately to financial aid. All but a handful of American colleges and universities are highly dependent on tuition, although they also work to supplement tuition revenue through fundraising in areas like student scholarships.
The problem is that endowments do not fund much institutional grant aid. In 2015-2106, for example, endowments funded only 12.4 percent of institutional grant aid provided to students. In general, 79 percent of aid awarded went to meet need, regardless of whether that need was classified as need-based or merit-based.
Need for Financial Aid Increases but Tuition Revenue is Flat
Mr. Seltzer notes that as tuition prices continue to increase, the share of students with financial need will also likely rise. What’s especially concerning is that the percentage of first-time, full-time freshman receiving institutional grants is estimated to be 87.9 percent in 2016-17. That doesn’t leave much space for the tuition from full-pay students to make much of a dent in the financial aid budget.
The overriding fact is that net tuition revenue per full-time freshman – the cash that supports the college after financial aid — is essentially flat, rising only 0.4 percent in the past year. Worse yet “well over half of survey respondents, 57.7 percent, reported a decline in total undergraduate enrollment between the fall of 2013 and the fall of 2016.” Further, just over half of schools surveyed reported a decrease in enrolled freshmen. The respondents blame price sensitivity, increased competition, and changing demographics as the primary reasons for this decline.
That leaves many colleges in a precarious position. If net tuition revenue is flat, discount rates are rising, the economic headwinds are blowing against them, and their enrollments are declining, financial options are narrowing at most colleges and universities.
A college or university can no longer depend on rising tuition or increased demand to grow its way out of what is now a systemic financial problem.
Discounting Strategies Aren’t Sustainable; Schools Know It but Few Admit It
Yet the most curious result in the survey was on the question of sustainability. In the IHE study, 44 percent of schools reported that their discounting strategies were not sustainable over the long term. Of the remainder, 32 percent said that they were sustainable over the short- but not the long-term. But only 9 percent “were willing to say that their strategies were not sustainable.” They presumably believe that some combination of new programs, better recruitment, and improved marketing strategies could work to improve their competitive position.
Financial aid is a complex question. Many of the colleges now suffering from their discounting practices have increased their discounts, for example, in an effort to serve more financially needy and diverse students. There can be time-specific reasons as well like the development of major new program initiatives.
But the inescapable fact is that American higher education continues to rely on outmoded and archaic financial strategies that used their primary source of revenue – tuition, fees, room and board – to balance out their expenses.
It’s an expense-driven model in which most of the large expenses – financial aid, cost of labor, technology, health care, and debt on capital expenditures – determine the revenue needed, effectively setting the tuition. Any institution increasing tuition much above the cost of inflation, now running at less than two percent, is effectively kicking the can down the road.
Despite the worrisome results of the NACUBO survey, many of us are still betting on American higher education to thrive. It must change how its financial pieces fit together and think imaginatively about how it can finance itself. It is likely that colleges will abandon long-time efforts to finance their capital expenditures exclusively on debt. It is possible to explore creative ways to manage targeted capital campaigns and rethink annual fund efforts. Change will require consortial efforts that move beyond paper and library purchases to see what can be accomplished in common on health care, retirement benefits, and technology.
The NACUBO study forces three conclusions upon us:
- Higher education must evolve more rapidly.
- The broad philosophical debates among staff, trustees, and the faculty must be about institutional sustainability.
- There is only so much time left to take the first big steps.