How healthy are American colleges? Their chief business officers speak.

Is American higher education financially sustainable?

We can do well to answer this question by listening to college and university chief finance or business officers.  After all, campus finance is their job.  Last week Inside Higher Ed  surveyed 415 of these professionals,* and the results are quite illuminating.

Tl;dr summary: for some, things are improving in the short term.  Private campuses are more nervous than publics.

I’ll break this down by the highlights which impressed me the most.

Short-term outlook improving, not so the long A growing number of CBOs feel good about their campus in a five year horizon:

Over all, 63 percent strongly agree or agree, while 14 percent strongly disagree or disagree, that they are confident their institution will be financially stable over the next five years. A year ago, 56 percent were confident.


CBOs are less confident about their institution’s financial stability over the next 10 years. Half strongly agree or agree they are confident, while 15 percent strongly disagree or disagree. The current figures are essentially unchanged from a year ago…

Much depends on which academic sector is asked:

How college and university funding actually works today The survey questions and responses offer useful glimpses into how the business of higher ed is conducted in 2018.

For example, endowments don’t matter much for nearly every campus:

Most CBOs say less than 5 percent of their budgets are funded by endowment income, but 7 percent of CBOs say that 15 percent or more of their budget is funded in this manner. According to CBOs’ estimates, an average of 4.0 percent of college operating budgets are supported by endowment income.

State funding continues to truckle along in its low level:

Public college CBOs report a steady proportion of state funding supporting their budgets in the last, current and upcoming fiscal years. They say state funds account for roughly one third of their operating budget in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 fiscal years.

Discount rates continue to be an important tool for shaping admissions, yet “[f]orty-eight percent of CBOs, up from 34 percent in 2013, strongly agree or agree their college’s tuition discount rate is unsustainable.”   A little more than one third think they’re fine:

Discount rates: are they sustainable? CBOs in 2018

Note this important detail: “Private baccalaureate CBOs are especially likely to express concern about their tuition discount rate, with 68 percent agreeing it is unsustainable.”  That’s two-thirds of these campuses.

Strategies So what are these CBOs thinking about doing?

The leading strategy is… get more students.

Asked about 20 possible strategies for addressing revenue shortfalls, CBOs are most likely to indicate their institution will attempt to increase overall enrollment. Seventy-two percent strongly agree or agree their college will attempt to increase overall enrollment in the 2018-19 academic year, including 77 percent of those at private institutions and 65 percent of those at public institutions.

How this will be done as enrollment declines, demographics don’t look good, and international students are decreasing… is not explored.

Next up, creating new programs:

Majorities of CBOs also say their college intends to launch new revenue-generating academic programs (63 percent) and launch new master’s degree programs (58 percent) to address budget shortfalls. Private college CBOs are also more likely than public college CBOs to say their college will pursue both of these strategies…

I suspect that some will fund those new programs by reducing old ones.  Yes, the queen sacrifice remains in play.

Also on the table: tuition freezes.  24% of public CBOs said their campus tuition was currently frozen.

More dramatically, some CBOs are in serious conversations about mergers.

17 percent of chief business officers say senior administrators at their institution have had serious internal discussions about merging with another college or university. That is up from 12 percent a year ago. Officials at private colleges continue to be more likely than public college CBOs to say merger discussions are taking place at their institution, 23 percent to 9 percent.

And some approve of the urge to merge: “Eighteen percent of CBOs believe their college should merge with another institution.”  Once again, privates are more anxious than publics:

Private college CBOs are more likely than their public college counterparts to say their institution should merge, 21 percent to 14 percent. This includes about one-fourth of CBOs at private baccalaureate colleges.

What blocks mergers from consideration?  The financial officers “see a desire to maintain the status quo, geography and faculty opposition as significant impediments to merger or consolidation…”

One more strategy for financial stability involves sharing services with other institutions.  This is more popular than I would have thought:

Slightly more than one-fourth of CBOs say senior officials at their college have had serious discussions about consolidating programs or services with another college or university. Half of CBOs believe their college should share administrative functions with another college or should combine academic programs.

What can we take away from this report?

American higher ed is neither sick nor healthy.  Its diversity of institutions mean a variety of indicators, with some doing well, and others frightened.  Private undergraduate institutions seem especially fragile and willing to take radical risks, while public universities are less so.

I’ve been following CBOs and CFOs closely for years, and these divides are pretty consistent (see this example from 2015).

We might anticipate more mergers, along with more proclamations of post-secondary vitality.

*About one half public institutions, one half private, plus a handful of for-profits.  That’s nearly 10% of American higher ed.

(thanks to Matthew Henry)

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4 Responses to How healthy are American colleges? Their chief business officers speak.

  1. Ken Soto says:

    Bryan – it seems to me that all of the numbers – percent considering new academic initiatives, considering mergers, considering resource sharing – will continue upward quickly, since the demographics aren’t changing all that much and they know the discounting is unsustainable. Small privates will be forced to consolidate, private and mid to large publics will continue diversifying their academic offerings to enroll older/non traditional students. (The CSU system is really promoting a new online course sharing program that seems designed to address class availability anxiety among students and parents but could also smooth out enrollment issues between the campuses.)

    This makes me wonder about partnerships between small privates and publics. There are obviously barriers to this but at some point the small privates will either consolidate by choice and design, or by distressed takeovers.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good thoughts, Ken. More innovation and invention.
      Partnerships: we need a lot more, but crossing private and public is like crossing the blood-brain barrier in higher ed. It takes serious work.

  2. Tatiana Goodwin says:

    I have to wonder how these CBOs rate each other. I imagine filtering out the effects of “I do things better than others” perspective might yield some interesting analyses.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I’ve read surveys of provosts and presidents including questions like that. They usually rates others below themselves.

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