A growing number of small US colleges are under pressure, according to a Bloomberg analysis of the latest federal data that shows more higher education institutions facing enrollment declines and other strains.

About 200 schools met at least three of the five metrics that Bloomberg used to identify rising pressure on non-profit higher-education institutions with less than 5,000 students, according to a review of the most-up-to-date government data from the US Department of Education. Those factors include high acceptance rates, falling enrollment and repeated years of operating losses.

That’s up from Bloomberg’s tally last year and the most facing pressure in over a decade, according to the 2022-23 collection period of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Those problems are rippling through college finances. More than a dozen small schools have shown signs of distress, including debt covenant violations, slashed credit ratings, or have plans to close or merge this year. 

“There is some rebounding, but we are still tracking lower than we were pre-pandemic,” said Lisa Washburn, chief credit officer and managing director at MMA. “Overall, the trends that were in place pre-pandemic seem to be continuing.”

A change in demographics and rising costs are largely to blame.

Some schools are facing dire consequences amid the stress. At least 13 small colleges squeezed by higher costs and increasing competition struck deals with bondholders, violated debt agreements, experienced rating downgrades or have plans to close or merge in 2024. 

Instances of distress among schools soared last year, according to MMA data. Schools reporting new instances of impairment, such as defaults or support draws, jumped from three in 2022 to 17 in 2023, more than double the average over the last decade.

Fitch Ratings is projecting a “deteriorating” credit environment for US higher education this year as schools grapple with wage pressure, higher interest rates and an uneven recovery in enrollment, according to the rating firm’s 2024 outlook.

“Consolidation is expected to persist in 2024 and beyond,” Emily Wadhwani, senior director at Fitch Ratings, wrote in the sector outlook. “Bifurcation will continue to widen the credit gap between larger, more selective institutions versus their smaller, less selective and more tuition-dependent counterparts.”

While fall 2023 saw the first increase in undergraduate headcount since the pandemic, most of that growth was concentrated in community colleges, according to data released in January by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Enrollment for freshmen 20 years old and younger didn’t grow and was still 5.3% below 2019 levels, according to the report.

The implications are troubling for schools, particularly smaller, less selective institutions amid a demographic shift in the US that’s expected to shrink the pool of high school graduates in the coming decade due to declining birth rates.

Bloomberg’s analysis, developed in consultation with six higher education experts, measured schools with fewer than 5,000 students across five metrics: a high acceptance rate, a low yield on offers of admission, falling enrollment, rising institutional aid and persistent operating losses. Meeting these criteria does not necessarily indicate financial distress, but schools that met more of the factors face greater challenges and will likely have a harder time investing in themselves, the experts said.

The data span about 1,100 small colleges over the last two decades. The most recent data from the federal database includes enrollment and admissions figures from fall 2022, given the lag in the Department of Education’s reporting. 

Roughly 200 schools met at least three of the five metrics, and about 60 schools met at least four of them. Ten schools met all five in the data from the 2022-2023 collection period, according to the analysis.

Some of the schools have shown clear signs of stress. Cardinal Stritch University in Wisconsin, Cabrini University in Pennsylvania and the College of Saint Rose in New York each met multiple flags in Bloomberg’s analysis. They’ve all decided to close their doors. 


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