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Small US colleges feeling the squeeze from “soft” tuition revenues

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A new report forecasts a tripling in small college closures in the US by 2017, and a doubling in the number of mergers involving smaller institutions by that same year
  • A majority of small US colleges are now no longer growing revenues at a rate that can keep pace with inflation
  • Small colleges in the US are losing market share to larger institutions

It is hardly a new idea that there are some important pressures on the traditional business model for higher education in the US. The population of college-aged students in America is projected to remain essentially flat over the next decade, competition is increasing, and US students and families are increasingly sensitive to the costs of higher education.

The US is not alone in this and similar conditions exist in a number of countries, particularly in the developed economies that receive the majority of internationally mobile students. But a recent report from Moody’s Investors Service sheds new light on the situation in American higher education and highlights an emerging structural challenge for smaller US institutions in particular.

The report, “Small College Closures Poised to Increase,” has triggered a number of news headlines and discussions over the past few months. For the most part, these have focused on the report’s lead findings:

  • The number of small colleges that will close annually will triple by 2017. In this context, “small” means a private institution with annual revenues of under US$100 million, or a public institution with revenues below US$200 million. Over the last decade, an average of five four-year public or private not-for-profit colleges have closed in the US each year. The implication of the Moody’s forecast is that the number of closures will increase to 15 per year (or more) by 2017.
  • Similarly, the report projects an increase in merger activity among smaller institutions. On average, there were two to three mergers per year involving small US colleges between 2004 and 2014. Moody’s expects this merger rate to “more than double” by 2017.

The main factor in this forecast is the intense revenue pressure facing smaller institutions in the US. The report is also careful to point out, however, that even with this significant rise in closures and mergers less than 1% of the 2,300 four-year colleges in the US will be affected.

It adds as well that, “Even in the face of material financial challenges, small colleges have proven to be tenacious. In some cases, deep stress can serve to mobilise alumni and other donors to provide extraordinary gift support. The presence of tenured faculty, donor restricted endowments, and the intervention of state attorneys general also complicates the decision to close.

The 2015 case of Sweet Briar College in Virginia underscores these themes as the decision to close was reversed, at least temporarily, amid increased donor support, legal challenges, and other advocacy for the college’s continuance. Small public universities are unlikely to be closed due to political support and their community roles, but may be merged with other institutions or into systems where they can benefit from greater economies of scale.”

Indeed, another 2015 report – this time from the higher education consulting group Academic Impressions – provides a detailed commentary on the strategies four small US institutions are using to buck the trend. The report largely describes a sample of small colleges that have embraced a culture of strategic innovation and experimentation as a response to these pressures on the traditional college revenue model.

The story behind the story

Behind the headlines arising from the Moody’s report are two underlying findings that are likely to have far-reaching effects on American higher education, and that certainly will extend well beyond the still-relatively small number of institutions impacted by the closures and mergers forecast for 2017.

First, a majority of small US colleges are now no longer able to sustain revenue growth at a level that can keep pace with inflation. The benchmark that Moody’s uses to measure this is a sustained three-year growth rate of 2%. The significance of this is that if you can’t hit that 2% mark as an institution, then your costs are very likely growing faster than your revenues.

As the following chart illustrates, the percentage of small US colleges in this position rose from under 10% in 2006 to just over 50% as of 2014.

Percentage of small colleges with three-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) below 2%. Source: Moody’s Investors Service

Leaving aside the obvious implication of this for the sustainability of an institution whose revenue growth falls below the inflation rate, there is a structural challenge that this sets up as well. An institution that is unable to generate sufficient revenue to keep pace with rising costs is also limited in its ability to invest for the future. That college is less able to mount a new marketing effort, build new programmes, improve campus facilities, or pursue any other such initiatives that might boost revenues above the 2% threshold.

As Moody’s puts it, “The sustained nature of revenue softness can create material challenges for small colleges, leaving them less able to strategically position themselves in a highly competitive environment.”

And as competition intensifies among US colleges, this soft revenue growth is also being influenced by heavier tuition discounting. A 2015 report from the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) finds the practice to be increasingly common among US institutions.

As Inside Higher Ed reported earlier this year, “Private institutions commonly discount their tuition – using institutional aid (often derived from tuition revenue) to offer students a discount from the sticker price – in an effort to entice students to enrol.”

NACUBO found that the average discount rate offered to freshmen students by these institutions reached 48% this year (reflecting the percentage of institutional grant dollars offered to first-year students as a percentage of gross tuition and fee revenue) up from 46.4% in 2014.

Put another way, the average private college in the study discounted its freshman tuition by nearly half in 2015.

These conditions are made even more serious by a second underlying finding from Moody’s: smaller colleges in the US are losing market share to larger institutions. Another chart from the report, which follows below, shows that, from fall 2010 on, institutions with 1,000 students or less have been losing students to institutions with enrolments of 10,000 or more.

Headcount enrolment market share changes for small and large US colleges, indexed to fall 2010. Source: Moody’s Investors Service

“The shift in market share away from the smallest colleges is primarily driven by factors related to student preferences,” says Moody’s. “Colleges with more substantial scale have greater ability to reinvest in degree programmes, student life and capital facilities. The larger colleges are often able to offer a deeper set of academic programmes and a larger social network of both current students and alumni. While some smaller colleges historically thrived by serving place-bound students, increased online education and student mobility are eroding that advantage.”

Not all small colleges are in jeopardy of course. Many have strong strategic niches in the marketplace, or additional donor revenues that can offset soft tuition revenue growth. But these underlying dynamics of increased competition, limited revenue growth, shifting market share, and greater price sensitivity on the part of students, can nevertheless be expected to play a significant role across the US higher education landscape going forward.

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