“Overall demographics for college-going students has been flat or declining. Families are becoming more sophisticated consumers of the higher education sector, shopping by price, considering the cost of a full freight of four or five years in college,” said Erin Ortiz, assistant vice president at Moody’s and co-author of the report. “That puts more pressure on these colleges to be able to increase tuition at prices above inflation.”
Years of breakneck increases in college pricing has raised concerns about affordability, leading some state lawmakers to impose tuition limits and freezes at public universities. As a result, nearly two thirds of those schools expect less than 3 percent growth in tuition revenue, a significant departure from the more than 5 percent annual growth they recorded between the fiscal years of 2005 to 2013. Still, a bump in state funding will cushion the blow for many schools, though it is not a dollar-for-dollar exchange, according to the report.
Small regional or rural public colleges will face the most pressure because they rely heavily on the enrollment of local students subject to state limits on tuition, whereas flagship universities benefit from a diverse population of higher-paying out-of-state and graduate students.
Moody’s has similar high hopes for large private universities with brand recognition to draw international students, who can offset declines in domestic enrollment. Private schools project a median increase in net tuition revenue of about 2 percent, in line with recent years, yet nearly a quarter of them are anticipating a decline in tuition revenue of up to 5 percent. Schools with niche markets, particularly law schools and those with geographic concentration, are the most exposed to revenue volatility as they have limited ability to adapt to shifting demand, the report said.
“There is a material portion of this sector that is experiencing a lot of pressure. We expect to see more college closures and consolidations, so that bifurcation of the industry is continuing,” said Susan I. Fitzgerald, associate managing director at Moody’s and co-author of the report.
Nearly half of the nation’s private universities are setting published prices artificially high and then offering deep discounts, a practice known as tuition discounting. Schools with stellar bond ratings can finance discounts through philanthropic gifts and endowment income while maintaining strong net tuition revenue growth. But for small private schools with lower ratings, discounting has a much more significant budget impact as they have limited resources, Moody’s said.
Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, argues that the credit rating agency underestimates the ability of small private schools to adapt to the changing landscape in higher education. Many small schools, he said, rely on strong alumni giving to fund institutional grants and scholarships.
While Ekman agrees that the shrinking population of college-age students will hurt the bottom line of some small private schools, along with the broader universe of colleges, he said schools have been reducing staff and programs to adjust.
“A number of colleges have not given raises to faculty for a few years, reduced staff,” he said. “Colleges are always looking for ways they can collaborate to save money. There are purchasing agreements among groups of colleges for supplies … so colleges are doing all that you would expect them to do to economize.”
College enrollment across the board has trailed off since reaching peaks before and during the recession, Moody’s said. Roughly 40 percent of universities estimate lower total enrollment this fall compared to the fall of 2010. Most of the pressure has been felt in the Midwest and Northeast, regions that are facing below-average or weak population growth.
Moody’s findings dovetail with a recent report from the College Board that showed the rate of price increases moderating in recent years. But that report pointed out that students who enrolled in four-year state schools this year still paid three times more than they would have in 1985. And with incomes declining during the past decade for all but the highest-earning families, even modest tuition increases can feel like tremendous burdens.
Median family income declined at an average rate of 0.2 percent a year after inflation between 2005 and 2014, while incomes rose 0.8 percent between 1995 and 2005, according to the College Board. So while tuition caps are putting pressure on colleges’ net revenue and might give families some breathing room, many will still feel stress paying for college.
Want to read more about paying for college? Check out these stories: