Over the course of the past several weeks, Americans have watched as a number of university senior administrators across the country have lost their jobs as the result of student protests. While this may incline other, still-employed campus leaders to pause to worry over whether they will have jobs in the near future, three new studies are telling them that they have larger concerns than their own survival—the survival of their institutions themselves.
The first study, a Moody’s Investors Service Report, forecasts that the declining ability of small colleges to increase revenue could lead to a tripling of the number of colleges that close in the years ahead as well as a doubling of mergers of institutions. The growth in closures and mergers is predicted to remain under 1% of the 2,300 four-year, private nonprofit and public colleges in the country. Although the report qualifies its conclusions to stress that the projected closures and mergers are relatively “small,” it adds that this number is “notable.” The chronic failure of a growing number of small institutions to raise revenue reliably could force as many as 15 schools a year to close over the next two years. Currently, the average number of colleges that close annually stands at roughly five.
Today, two to three schools annually are forced by economic necessity to merge with another school or schools. Moody’s predicts that this number will rise soon to between four and six a year. Private schools will be more likely to close than merge, while public schools, due to political considerations, will be more likely to merge rather than close. The report defines small private colleges as those with total annual operating revenues below $100 million, while small public colleges are defined as possessing annual revenues of below $200 million.
Why are these smaller schools, both public and private, finding themselves unable to raise sufficient revenue to meet their expenses? “Enrollment declines and lost market share for smaller colleges continue to spur closures and mergers, as students increasingly opt for larger colleges with greater academic resources,” answers Moody’s Dennis Gephardt. The study forecasts that this trend—of smaller schools losing market share to larger ones—will only continue. The lost funds hinder the ability of these schools to increase their investments in “academic programs, student life and facilities,” which only makes them less competitive in an age when amenities (luxury swimming pools, etc.) can rank high on some prospective students’ lists of what they want from the college in which they choose to enroll.
In addition, these schools suffer from relatively small endowments (the part of a school’s income derived from donations, the interest from which helps offset expenses and fund new projects). With small endowments, all that is left for these cash-strapped schools is to raise tuition. Indeed, a good number of small colleges are “tuition-dependent,” which means that the periodic rises and falls in the entering-college population affect them much more deeply than they do schools protected by the firewall provided by more robust endowments.
But raising tuition as a means to increase revenue flies in the face of the national outcry over tuition hyperinflation. Over the past quarter-century, average tuitions nationally have spiked 440%, a rate of increase four times higher than general inflation. As a result, students and their parents have been forced to burden themselves with massive student-loan debt, which now stands at $1.2 trillion. Thus, when a small college raises tuition, this only reduces its market share further, as hard-pressed students flee to larger schools with lower tuitions. And if it opts not to raise tuition in the hope of attracting more enrollments, it finds itself unable to pay for needed improvements in infrastructure and programs, thereby making it less attractive in comparison to larger schools.
As daunting a challenge as this is, when we look deeper, we find still further difficulties faced by tuition-dependent smaller colleges, as another study, conducted by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) recently revealed. TheNACUBO study finds that the pressure on private colleges has grown to such an extent that, instead of raising tuitions, they offered incoming freshmen an average tuition discount of 48% last year—an historic high.
In sum, more small colleges are enrolling fewer student, and this smaller number of enrollees is paying less tuition. The unfortunately all-too-predictable result of this double blow is this: Moody’s found that the percentage of schools suffering from three-year growth rates under 2% has quintupled, to 50%, in the last eight years.
With a growing number of schools limping so close to the precipice, it is easy to imagine a major shakeout coming in the future, one that will change the face of American higher education. But Moody’s Gephardt cautions against undue pessimism. “Amid deep financial distress,” he observes, “small colleges can prove to be steadfast.” For example, “some colleges can be bolstered by extraordinary donor support, balance sheet strength, or by specializing in a specific niche that is attractive to students.”
Gephardt’s counsel of cautious optimism is doubtless buttressed by the recent experience of Sweet Briar College, a small women’s school in Virginia. In March of this year, Sweet Briar’s board of trustees announced that it was closing the school due to what the board viewed as insurmountable financial stress. But the announcement roused the school’s alumnae and other supporters, who then raised sufficient funds that the school opted to reverse its decision to close.
Does Sweet Briar’s resurrection lend hope to other schools in similarly straitened circumstances, or is it merely a blip on the radar screen? The latest U.S. Census data may serve as yet another nail in the coffin of small, tuition-dependent colleges. These data show that the 14-17-year-old demographic will dip somewhat in the near future, and will not begin to rise before 2030. Therefore, in addition to the challenges these colleges face from loss of market share and being forced to heavily discount tuition, they will find themselves drawing from a stagnant pool of potential enrollees for the next decade and a half.
When you add to this latest wrinkle the competition coming from growing online and competency-based higher-education programs—which promise to reduce both the expense and the time currently required for a bachelor’s degree—we find that the situation for many small colleges is not only dire today, but also that it could become much worse in the next decade.