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A new report from the Century Foundation shows that many colleges hit hard times over the summer.

The foundation analyzed data on federal student loans that were disbursed between April 1 and June 30. All higher education sectors -- public, for-profit and private nonprofit -- saw large decreases in student loan volume compared to the previous summer.

​"In general, I don’t think people had positive expectations for how things are going in higher education right now," said Kevin Miller, a fellow with the left-leaning foundation and the author of the report. "The loan data confirmed that this summer was a hard term for most institutions."

Student loan volume across higher education decreased 43 percent this summer compared to the summer of 2019, according to the report. For-profit institutions saw the biggest drop at 46 percent, and public institutions saw the smallest drop at 40 percent.

These data are released four times each year, Miller said, and are some of the most up-to-date numbers available in higher education. Federal Student Aid updates the data for two years after the initial report to adjust for changes like late disbursements and cancellations, so it could change over time. The data also only show a slice of an institution's income. 

(Note: This article was updated to clarify that these data are revised over time.)

The data could be a canary in the coal mine for what higher education will be facing over the next year, as they are available much sooner than enrollment or budget data collected through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS, Miller said.

But the data isn't the whole picture.

"We can assume that institutions that took a substantial hit on student loan volume this summer probably had lower enrollment and lower income across at least part of their model," Miller said. But it's impossible to tell right now what this means for students or for other sources of revenue at colleges.

"It will be months or even a year before we have a complete picture of how 2020 looks for higher ed," he added.

The bigger question for Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at the Education Trust, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., is how this is impacting students.

"While I was troubled by some of the findings in terms of the potential impact to institutions, I also know that there’s been a federal stimulus to many of these institutions and there will likely be another stimulus," Del Pilar said. "But what we haven’t addressed is what this means for students who often depend on these supports."

These data don't provide enough information to determine what student populations are potentially leaving higher education. Graduate students make up a large portion of student loan borrowers, Miller said. Many students also take out loans to pay for room and board costs, Del Pilar said, and that's no longer necessary at many institutions because they've gone remote.

The National College Attainment Network has tracked data that show renewals of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid were down in late spring in most states. Lower-income students were the most likely to not renew their applications.

One piece of the report that surprised Miller was how hard-hit the for-profit sector was this summer. The foundation had been anticipating a possible resurgence for for-profit colleges, as many are online, he said. But these data show the sector potentially is doing worse than public and nonprofit private institutions.

Summer is also often the largest quarter for the for-profit sector, Miller said, so these data could be especially concerning for them.

"The more traditional schools tend to have their biggest quarters be the fall and spring," he said. "So even if they had a drastic drop, it might not represent a big part of their income."

Del Pilar wasn't surprised at the for-profit numbers, he said. But he was surprised to see the amount of federal student loan revenue that some colleges were getting.

Seeing some of the big names on the list, like Southern New Hampshire University and Liberty University, is "deeply troubling," he said, "because their model acts like a for-profit model."

While these data don't definitively say how institutions are doing, they should be a signal to policy makers about what higher education is going to need, Miller said.

"The audience should be policy makers who need to see these numbers as an indicator of the pretty dire situation many institutions are going to find themselves [in]," he said. "It's important that policy makers think of state funding and federal aid to institutions and students because of this data."

The report also is a reminder of how important it is for colleges to monitor their own data, Del Pilar said. Institutions should be looking at which student populations are stopping out or not enrolling to maintain any gains made in recent years in closing the equity gaps.

"We need to be looking one layer down at who are the students who are impacted?" he said. "We know it will impact institutions, but we need to not lose sight of how it affects students."

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