Calculating Stress on Colleges

A new book looks at how the market is affecting colleges' futures -- and where risk is most concentrated.

February 1, 2020
 
Johns Hopkins University Press

The appendix of a new book contains everything needed to calculate a score gauging the market stress faced by individual colleges and universities across the country.

It’s a provocative idea that could provide information of use to discerning students and improvement-minded administrators alike. It’s also an idea that’s getting more attention and growing more controversial of late as the higher education sector continues to feel pressure on several fronts and as a small number of institutions announce closure or merger plans every year.

But the authors of the book, The College Stress Test (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), intentionally didn’t include a list of institutions and their market stress scores -- even though they calculated scores for well over 2,000 institutions. Instead, they spend the book’s pages examining the higher education market, discussing factors that they used to score institutions’ level of stress and discussing strategies colleges and universities can use to change their trajectory.

“At its core, this effort to identify institutions at greatest risk due to shifting student markets is a quantitative one,” wrote the authors, University of Pennsylvania higher education professor Robert Zemsky, former Penn director of institutional research Susan Shaman and Middlebury College professor -- and former provost -- Susan Campbell Baldridge. “We wanted to know which institutions were most at risk of closing and why. But we believe it is also important to understand the emotions that inevitably swirl around questions of institutional viability.”

Their findings suggest college closings won’t be as frequent as some soothsayers have predicted. No more than one out of 10 of the country’s colleges and universities face “substantial market risk,” and closings are likely to affect “relatively few students.” Six in 10 institutions face little to no risk.

Those on campus should pause before taking heart, however. The remaining three in 10 institutions seem likely to struggle, and it will probably be very difficult for them to change their fortunes or market position.

“If anything, that market is becoming more rather than less fixed, making it increasingly likely that it will be the richer and bigger institutions that reap the benefits of a consolidating market,” the authors wrote.

Strategies in tuition pricing, like tuition resets, might buy some institutions time, they suggested. But moving important needles, like freshman-to-sophomore retention, is going to require the faculty to produce changes.

The College Stress Test may seek to have a rational, rather than hysterical, discussion about the pressures squeezing colleges and universities. And it may spare individual institutions from having their stress scores set in print. Still, it is not a blanket reassurance to the higher education sector.

“We caution that failing to pay attention to higher education’s increasingly muddled value proposition will yield both institutions at risk and a market that makes increasingly less sense to a public already skeptical of higher education’s core values,” the authors write.

Zemsky answered questions about the book via email. The following exchange has been edited slightly for clarity.

Q: What did you find to be the greatest predictors that an institution might close?

A: To begin with, we were measuring risk -- the risk of running out of students more than money, though there is an obvious link between enrollment and finance. The best predictor of market risk or stress was a combination: declining first-year enrollments and increasing market prices over the last 10 years. In short, if an institution is both increasing its discount rate and still having ever-smaller classes of new students, then it is in real trouble. Or, as we wrote, “The really unlucky colleges have suffered a double whammy over the last decade: higher discount rates that yield less tuition income per student coupled with enrollment declines yielding fewer students. Most losers have also experienced financial shifts large enough that budget reductions alone are unlikely to yield sufficient savings to offset losses in revenue.”

Q: Are any types of institution most at risk, and do they tend to serve a certain type of student?

A: Very small institutions are identified at risk more often than larger institutions.

There are actually very few demographic tags identifying students more likely to attend an institution at market risk. The most obvious was African American students.

Q: Can you briefly explain the Market Stress Test Score and what goes into it?

A: The methodology identifies how and when continuing downward slopes (actual and projected) are important: more discounting, smaller first-year or freshman class, more attrition in the first year of enrollment. All the data come from the individual reports accredited institutions submitted to IPEDS 2008-2016.

Q: This book includes everything you need to calculate risk scores for institutions enrolling the majority of undergraduates in the United States. Why not publish a list of them with their scores?

A: Focusing on institutions runs counter to the central finding of the book: it is the market that is shifting institutional futures both up and down. The challenge is for an institution to understand its place in that market and adjust its strategies accordingly. What an institution’s market stress score signals is its place in the market. What our book provides is the context for understanding how that market works.

Q: How much do students have a right to know the risks they're taking on when they enroll in college?

A: There are no secrets here -- my experience with readily available consumer data is that such information, except for rankings, seldom plays much of a role in college decisions.

Q: What surprised you most about your findings?

A: Two things: colleges and the universities in the middle of the country face greater risks than colleges in New England, and the best indicator of risk for public four-year institutions is consistently declining state appropriations.

Q: What did we miss in this interview?

A: Not much except that the institutions that can benefit most from our analysis are those in the middle of the market -- they may in fact not fully realize how and why they are at risk in a consolidating market in which the rich are getting richer and the big are getting bigger.

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