Last week, Moody’s Investors Service issued a negative short-term outlook for the entire sector of higher education based on its conclusion that every traditional revenue source for even the most elite colleges and universities is under pressure. That pressure, according to the report, is the result of nation-wide economic, technological and public opinion shifts, which are largely beyond institutions’ control.
The outlook report, released annually, articulates the fundamental credit conditions that Moody’s expects higher education will face during the next 12 to 18 months. For the last two years, Moody’s gave elite colleges and research universities a stable forecast; but this year, the following factors contributed to a negative outlook for the entire industry:
Struggling Revenue Sources:
- State appropriations are unlikely to increase meaningfully due to weak economic recovery.
- Federal spending on research and student aid could be truncated in response to the nation’s fiscal concerns.
- Tuition revenue continues to be suppressed by low family incomes and public/political pressure to keep prices down.
- Endowment returns are vulnerable to any economic volatility that could stem from federal tax and budget decisions.
- Donations are not expected to increase and could face pressure as Congress evaluates associated tax deductions.
- Financial diversity is no longer helpful as all revenue streams are strained.
- Student debt and loan default rates have increased and thus challenged the perceived value of a degree.
- High school graduates are declining in number.
- Public and political scrutiny of efficiency and degree value could add to institutions’ list of regulatory requirements.
- New technologies such as online learning and MOOCs could provide new revenue opportunities, but could also undermine traditional higher ed models.
Moody’s analysts warn that revenue streams will never rebound to post-2008 levels and leaders in higher education will need to adapt by thinking strategically and adjusting their operations.
But not all is gloom and doom. Although Moody’s gave higher education a negative outlook, most of the country’s top colleges and universities still hold the strong credit rankings. The UW, for one, continues to maintain a Aaa credit rating—the highest offered by Moody’s. Additionally, the report stressed that the intrinsic value of and demand for higher education remains stable.
Yesterday, the Senate and House of Representatives approved legislation to avert the fiscal cliff. The deal postpones the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts—known as “the sequester”—by two months and increases tax rates only for individuals earning over $400,000 and couples earning over $450,000. The bill also preserves funding for Pell Grants and extends for five years the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), which allows students and their parents to claim up to $2,500 a year for tuition and college expenses.
For details, please see the blog post provided by Christy Gullion, Director of Federal Relations, and the articles provided by Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle
Here are a few noteworthy headlines from the past few days of higher education news:
- History professors at the University of Florida are fighting a proposed differential tuition strategy that would hold tuition rates stable for “high-skill, high-wage, high-demand” degree programs for at least three years. Most STEM degrees made the list of majors recommended for this tuition freeze, while core Humanities disciplines (such as history) did not. The Governor-commissioned task force responsible for the proposal said, “The theory is that students in ‘non-strategic majors,’ by paying higher tuition, will help subsidize students in the ‘strategic’ majors, thus creating a greater demand for the targeted programs and more graduates from these programs, as well.” Supporters feel such an approach will provide taxpayers with the maximum return on their investment and “improve the university system overall.” However, the opposition, championed by a number of history professors, argues the strategy would detract from the university’s prestige and lead to a less “richly educated” workforce. Over 1,300 faculty from Florida and beyond have petitioned Florida Governor Rick Scott to seek faculty input for future decisions regarding Florida’s higher education system. This particular form of differential tuition contrasts with the more typical, cost-driven approach, under which students in majors that cost the university more to provide (such as STEM fields) are charged higher tuition than students studying less expensive subjects (like history).
- Carnegie Corporation President, Vartan Gregorian, is advocating for a presidential commission on higher education to “generate the kind of attention and urgency that the circumstances demanded for the nation to keep its competitive edge.” The commission’s mandate would be to address the many challenges confronting higher education (cost, access, etc.) and help policy makers determine its future. Given the drastic demographic, technological, and economic changes already occurring in higher ed, Mr. Gregorian believes now is the appropriate time to discuss nation-wide reform.
- Apprenticeships are becoming more popular in the U.S. as a means of bridging the disconnect between what students learn in college and what their future employers actually want them to know. Several Harvard professors, inspired by Germany’s “dual system” of providing students with practical job-related skills and theoretical instruction, are working with six states to establish apprenticeship programs.
As a means of both acknowledging and analyzing the recession’s impact on students, this year’s National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) included a new set of questions asking how students’ finances affect their stress and academic activities. Approximately 15,000 first-year and senior students from “a diverse group of 43 institutions” responded to the new addendum. The results, which were released last week, indicate that “finances were a significant concern for the majority of students.”
As seen in Table 5 from the official report:
- The majority of students frequently worried about paying for college and regular expenses.
- Roughly 1 in 3 students said financial concerns interfered with their academic performance.
- About 30 percent said they frequently chose not to buy required academic materials due to cost.
- More students looked into working more hours than into borrowing more money as a way to cover costs.
- Approximately 3 in 4 students still agreed that college is a good investment.
In addition to these findings, the study found that over 55 percent of full-time seniors said that their choice of major was influenced by factors such as ability to find a job and/or the prospect of career advancement. Yet, 89 percent of students overall said the most influential factor in choosing a major was still how well it fit with their talents and academic interests.
Washington’s Economic Revenue and Forecast Council (ERFC) released November’s revenue forecast today. Overall, revenue collections for the current biennium are holding steady, while collections anticipated for the next biennium are slightly lower than the previous forecast.
2011-13 (FY12 and FY13)
For the current biennium, collections are $8 million higher than the previous forecast, and though this increase is extremely slight, it signals
to agencies that additional, current year budget cuts are unlikely when the legislature reconvenes in January.
2013-15 (FY14 and FY15)
The upcoming session will be at least 105 days in length and result in a new biennial (two year) budget for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The revenue forecast for the upcoming biennium was also updated today and as predicted, shows a modest decline but largely holds anticipated collections to the previously forecasted level. As required by law, ERFC releases optimistic and pessimistic alternative forecasts for the coming biennium. The alternative forecasts suggest that a variance of $3 billion in new revenue or in new cuts is possible. For the time being, the actual forecast for the upcoming biennium is $88 million lower than the September forecast. Slow growth is expected in both Washington State and the US. However, high downside risks including the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, federal fiscal cliff, and the resulting employment and consumer confidence declines present significant reasons to be skeptical about any significant revenue growth.
Governor Gregoire will release her biennial budget in December, but new Governor Jay Inslee may present an alternative budget in January, at
the same time the legislature begins its budget process. Stay tuned! We have a long way to go!
The New York Times reported last week that the University of Phoenix will be shutting down 115 of its 227 locations over the next year—25 main campuses and 90 learning centers. The roughly 13,000 students affected by the closings (4 percent of the total student body) will have the option of either transferring to the university’s online classes or moving to another physical location. In addition, the Apollo Group, which owns the university, announced it is laying off 800 employees (4.7 percent of the university’s total staff).
The changes surprise some as Phoenix was a booming success for over a decade. However, in 2011, for-profits as a whole began to struggle. Tightened regulations; a poor economy; growing competition from MOOCs and other online providers; and scrutiny of the sector’s unethical recruiting practices, low graduation rates, high default rates, and use of federal funds caused for-profit enrollments to fall significantly relative to other sectors (as discussed in a previous post). And, as enrollments fell, so did revenue. The University of Phoenix was among the hardest hit. Compared with the same fiscal quarter a year ago, student enrollment at Phoenix dropped nearly 14 percent and Apollo’s net income plummeted 60 percent.
So, will the University live up to its name and rise anew from the remains of its finances and reputation? Or could Phoenix’s decline foretell the impending doom of other for-profit institutions? Time will tell.
The Pell Grant program, the largest federal student grant program, was expected to be $20 billion short of the $40 billion price estimated for FY12 (which ended July 1). However, the Department of Education surprised many with newly-released data showing the federal government not only spent well under that estimate at only $33.4 billion, but in fact $2.2 billion less than FY11.
Recently, Pell eligibility increased dramatically as college enrollments rose and the recession continued to impact family/student income. This trend continued in FY12 and, interestingly, the dip in Pell spending occurred despite a 58,000 increase in Pell recipients—to almost 9.7 million. In fall 2011, nearly one quarter of UW freshmen were Pell eligible.
Reasons for the decline in Pell spending include:
- The elimination of the year-round, or summer, Pell Grant, which allowed students to qualify for two awards in a year.
- More students attending college part time as part-time status reduces Pell award amounts.
- Fewer students attending for-profit institutions, which tend to enroll students who qualify for larger awards. Recent bad press and slumping enrollments have hit for-profits hard. Consequently, the number of Pell recipients at for-profits declined by 108,000 students, to roughly 2.1 million, and accounted for $1.4 billion of the decrease.
The drop in Pell expenditures is a relief for most lawmakers as they face next year’s “fiscal cliff” and must address both the impending tax hikes (when Bush tax cuts expire) and the automatic spending cuts (as mandated by the sequester). The Obama administration and congressional Democrats have resisted financial aid-related budget cutting, maintaining the maximum Pell award of $5,550 and writing specific protection for Pell Grant funding into the Budget Control Act. However, recent financial straits have already caused the federal government to eliminate several student loan programs such as the previously-mentioned summer Pell Grant, the six-month grace period for loan repayment, subsidized Stafford Loans for graduate students, and incentives for early loan repayment. With the sequester and difficult budget decisions looming on the horizon, it is safe to say that no funding is safe.
A new study from the State Budget Crisis Task Force concludes that in many states, anticipated revenues will be insufficient to cover mounting Medicaid enrollment caseloads, underfunded pension commitments, and local government budget obligations. The authors focused their investigation on California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Virginia. They predicted that anticipated revenues (from sales, income, or other taxes) would be both insufficient to cover expenses and fairly instable, as personal income remains volatile and unemployment (and underemployment) high. In other words, we are edging towards the state budget precipice, even as the national economy distances itself from the official end of the Great Recession proclaimed in 2009.
These conclusions are not unfamiliar to readers; we recently blogged about state-level fiscal uncertainty and sluggish revenue growth. However, this study sheds additional light on the subject, being the first to make a comprehensive assessment of the tension between mounting expenses and shaky revenues in highly populated states.
While Washington State continues to experience slow economic growth in some sectors and in its generation of tax revenue, the Economic Revenue and Forecast Council (ERFC), in its July collections report, refrained from making any firm economic revenue projections due to the excessive variability of receipts. The ERFC report also emphasized slowing job growth: while reducing state unemployment by 0.5 percent would require 160,000 new jobs each month, the state only added 80,000 new jobs in June.
While anticipated revenue is increasing slightly, the downside risks of a second recession brought on by the debt crisis in Europe, disappointing job growth, and depressed consumer confidence are significant. Despite these concerns, ERFC predicts slight revenue increases for both the 2011-13 and 2013-15 biennia, due to legislative action from the 2012 supplemental budget.
Slow economic recovery and continuing high unemployment rates have significantly increased concern about student borrowing levels. OPB’s latest brief provides basic information and data about student borrowing (in the US and at the UW) to help contextualize such concerns.
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The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has updated its ongoing state budget report: States Continue to Feel Recession’s Impact. On average, state tax collections increased 8.3 percent in 2011, but 30 states have so far projected $54 billion worth of budget shortfalls for Fiscal Year 2012, on top of the $530 billion worth of shortfalls closed by states since 2007. Even if revenue continues to increase at the same rate as it did last year, it would take over seven years for state budgets to recover to pre-recession levels.
As states continue to cut funding, including laying off government workers, unemployment remains over 8 percent and more people than ever are in need of government services, including education and social services. The report emphasizes the importance that increased tax revenue will likely have to play in the recovery of state budgets given how much spending has already been cut by states and how unlikely additional federal aid appears to be. Visit the CBPP website and blog often for updates on many state and federal budget issues.
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