Painting a grim picture for American higher education, Moody’s Investors Service recently changed the industry’s outlook from “stable” to “negative.”
This return to negative ratings reinforces a number of trends that bear close review.
The facts are clear and inescapable. The comprehensive fee – tuition, fees, room and board – will approach $70,000 a year at a number of high sticker priced colleges and universities.
Students and their families are voting with their feet, with 46 percent of first-time students beginning or having had some experience in community colleges.
Politicians sensitive to anecdote, polling or simply worried about the price of a higher education degree, promote policies that reinforce this optic. Recent efforts to tax wealthy endowments to skew higher education spending priorities, often towards demands for moderated tuition or increased financial aid, illustrate this point further.
Higher education has taken some steps. Efforts have been underway to trim rising costs and achieve basic efficiencies since the Great Recession. These efforts vary widely depending upon the urgency felt within an institution, its level of creativity and nimbleness, shifting demographics, and the relative strength of the net tuition revenue it receives. Trimming costs or enrolling more students, however, cannot cure what higher education faces. America’s colleges and universities have a revenue problem.
Fixed costs in land, labor, and debt repayment and rising costs in health care and financial aid largely determine a college’s operating budget. Labor alone might be sixty percent of a typical small college’s budget. Most colleges are heavily tuition dependent. There is little or no discretion in the operating budget. For some of them the financial aid discount rate now approaches seventy percent. Dorms will be full until the institution, desperate for revenue, closes, merges or is acquired.
Many of these colleges rely on other sources of support. Auxiliary revenue sources like residence and dining hall fees cover some of the territory lost to declining tuition revenue. Endowment income also helps but most colleges do not have sufficient endowment revenue to make a significant difference. Comprehensive campaigns and research grants and contracts address longer-term needs but do little to fund short-term revenue problems.
The truth is that colleges rely on an older, archaic operating model where tuition increases historically matched expenses to balance an annual budget, often aided by auxiliary services revenue. For many schools, it was that simple. As new financial, cultural, demographic, consumer, and program pressures build, these “Mom and Pop” shops do not have the flexibility or capacity to meet the new demands.
What’s the path forward?
There are a number of changes that must be made immediately to offset this growing crisis:
- College governance is weak and ineffective and must be immediately adapted to meet new oversight demands, with the faculty playing a more important role in creating an innovative educational enterprise.
- Colleges must understand the institution’s value proposition, if the mission is still relevant and differentiated from its peers, and where the college wishes to be in out years. Why should the college exist in the 21st century?
- The “Mom and Pop” operations must give way to a newer, more flexible model that accounts for changes in how colleges use tuition, re-imagine underutilized real estate assets, re-configure capital campaigns to meet shorter-term needs, re-think the use of temporarily-restricted funds, and seek additional partners to produce new revenue streams.
- Higher education institutions must set aside older enrollment strategies in favor of newer financial aid analytical models that differentiate academic programs, emphasize student life, expand when practical the traditional 18-22 year old applicant pool, and focus on outcomes through stronger career counseling networks that create a lifelong affiliation.
- Stakeholders must work much more aggressively at retention and graduation strategies, using student life, including athletics, as an enrollment tool to increase student fit and the level of satisfaction.
- Colleges must determine what facilities footprint the institution can afford. Its leadership must grow/shrink the college to create a better fit among people, programs and facilities.
- Institutions must get out of those business arrangements that are eating up financial capacity for which there are better service providers. If the college can use its legal, accounting and student life teams to create a robust residential life program, for example, does it really need to own its housing, with its corresponding debt, that might otherwise go to academic support?
- The campus community must think of technology as an ongoing operating lease rather than a draw against remaining levels of debt capacity.
- Its supporters must remember that a college is both an educational enterprise and an economic engine for its region, and seek strong public private partnerships to mutual benefit.
Despite the dismal forecasts, the decentralized and complex higher education system remains a cornerstone of American ingenuity, creativity and promise. The task ahead is to imagine the possible.
Brian C. Mitchell is a founder and principal of Academic Innovators and the past president of Bucknell University and Washington & Jefferson College. With W. Joseph King, he is the author of How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators and Policymakers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).
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