- A pair of new reports from Moody's Investors Service and Fitch Ratings offers prognoses for the pandemic's impact on colleges during 2021.
- Enrollment volatility will persist, the ratings agencies say. Moody's predicts net tuition revenue will decline at around 75% of private schools and 60% of publics. Along with lower auxiliary income and state funding, colleges' budgets will remain strained.
- A "sharp" rebound is not likely, Moody's analysts note, citing an uneven recovery and that state funding and net tuition revenue will likely still be suppressed in fiscal 2022.
Moody's analysts predict the pandemic will challenge higher education operations through at least July 2021, but they don't expect conditions to snap back. Operating revenues will be down 5% to 10% sectorwide for fiscal 2021, they note, and continued weakness among critical revenue sources is expected to trouble schools after that point.
One decision that could significantly affect colleges' projections is the extent to which they will open campuses this spring. To stave off the possibility of having to shutter campuses due to coronavirus outbreaks — as happened this fall — several colleges are adjusting their academic calendars. And some plan to increase virus testing.
Enrollment has been another area of uncertainty. Preliminary data show fall 2020 graduate and undergraduate counts are down 3.3% year-over-year. Moody's projects enrollment will decline around 2.5% in fiscal 2021. That decrease, along with an uptick in financial aid, should bring median net tuition revenue down 3.3% for private schools and 0.9% for publics.
Large comprehensive universities will generally fare better than smaller regional colleges, however, the report says.
Colleges were facing pressure to lower tuition and fees before the pandemic. The crisis may exacerbate that trend, "as expected family incomes and contributions decline and the need for greater institutional aid (typically in the form of tuition discounting) grows," Fitch Ratings Director Emily Wadhwani explained in a separate report.
International student enrollment is also an area of concern, the reports note. Those students tend to pay full price, offsetting aid for domestic students, so a decrease in their numbers can hurt colleges' ability to lower costs.
International student enrollment fell 16% this fall, with an even bigger decrease (43%) among newcomers, according to a survey published last month. The pandemic likely compounded an ongoing trend of fewer new foreign students coming to the country, for which U.S. visa restrictions and more opportunities in other countries have been contributing factors.
Higher ed groups are calling for updated guidance on how international and exchange students can access U.S. institutions during the pandemic.