It’s shaping up to be a good year for private universities, as they are projected to eclipse their public counterparts in tuition revenue growth for the first time in more than a decade, Moody’s Investors Service said in a report Thursday.
In its annual survey of four-year colleges and universities, the credit rating agency said private institutions project net tuition revenue — the money earned from students after colleges provide financial aid — will climb about 2.4 percent in fiscal 2018. Meanwhile, public universities anticipate a 2 percent growth rate during that period due to pricing constraints and shifting demographics. Moody’s polled a total of 280 of the colleges and universities it rates for the survey.
“Sector-wide, tuition revenue growth is subdued for both publics and privates, but publics are under more pressure because of a lot of affordability initiatives that have been implemented statewide, a decline in international students and the rise of dual enrollment programs,” said Christopher Collins, assistant vice president at Moody’s and author of the report.
Heightened focus on freezing or limiting tuition increases by some state lawmakers, coupled with a competitive environment for a stagnant pool of high school students, is weakening the pricing power at public universities. About 30 percent of public universities rated by Moody’s anticipate waning net tuition per student, nearly triple the number of schools in fiscal 2015.
Small public colleges face the most pressure, with median net tuition revenue growth of only 1 percent, according to the report. Compared with their larger counterparts, small state schools have a limited pool of students to draw from and a more price-sensitive student body. Collins said some schools are starting to feel the effects of dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college courses.
“These students are monetized, but they typically don’t pay the same tuition rates that a typical student would pay. This is another factor in bringing down net tuition per student growth,” he said. “Schools still have to pay the costs associated with educating these students, but the students aren’t paying a full rate. Sometimes they’re not paying anything.”
Public research and state flagship universities are best positioned to realize robust growth beyond fiscal 2018 because they benefit from a diverse population of out-of-state and international students, who pay more than residents, the report said. But even the pipeline of foreign students is no longer a guarantee, as some schools are reporting a dip in international enrollment. International students represent 5.9 percent of total fall 2017 enrollment compared with 6.7 percent of fall 2016, the report said.
For private universities, net tuition revenue growth is rooted in enrollment stability along with a median annual sticker price increase of nearly 4 percent, which offsets some of the continued growth in what is known as tuition discounting.
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. Those schools reported a first-year discount rate in excess of 50 percent for fall 2017, up from 26 percent in fiscal 2012, Moody’s said. The trend underscores the highly competitive environment to attract students and indicates a weakness in pricing power. Public colleges are also engaging in more tuition discounting to compete, a trend that Collins said is worth watching in the coming years.
Similar to the public sector, large private universities, often those known for niche programs like health science or engineering, stand the best chance of yielding high net tuition revenue. A number of those schools projected per student revenue growth above 5 percent, Moody’s said.
Despite the boost in net tuition growth at private universities recorded in the latest survey, Collins said institutions of higher education are overall seeing a continuation of moderate growth. Tuition increases are tracking closely to the historic rate of inflation, after years of breakneck growth after the 2008 recession.
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