Unfunded pension liabilities are higher than capital-related debt at the country’s public universities, according to a report Moody’s Investors Service issued Friday.
Moody’s said adjusted net pension liabilities will represent more than 60 percent of total adjusted debt by the end of the 2017 fiscal year. Unfunded pension liabilities totaled more than $183 billion across the sector after two straight years of investment returns below actuarial assumptions and after contributions to funds have remained weak.
Currently, pension expenses are just 3 percent of universities’ reported expenses, Moody’s said. But it anticipated pension expenses rising along with liabilities, putting more pressure on university finances. Moody’s also predicted that some states will shift pension burdens onto universities by lowering allocations to pay for other operating expenses. Certain states that currently make some or all employer pension contributions on behalf of universities are at risk. Moody’s pointed to Illinois and New Jersey as having substantial unfunded pension liabilities and budget imbalances, while Oklahoma and West Virginia are under budget pressure because of low energy prices.
Recent history in Illinois and New Jersey shows state operating support being consumed by higher levels of funding for retirement benefits.
Public universities have lower net pension liabilities relative to their size than some large local governments, however. They also have cash and investments that would be able to cushion a sudden need to boost pension funding.
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