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Not-For-Profit Higher Education Mid-Year Sector View: Fall 2020 Enrollments Will Drive Credit


What We're Watching In The Second Half Of 2020 And Beyond

U.S. higher education institutions continue to face significant business model and financial risk. Many of the challenges and opportunities we identified at the start of 2020 have shifted dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are watching the following developments across higher education during the second half of 2020, as reopening plans are announced--and changed--daily:

  • Mode of academic operations (online, in person, hybrid) and actual enrollment matriculations, as well as tuition levels and overall net tuition revenues;
  • Potential state appropriation, fundraising, research, and other revenue shortfalls, and how they are managed;
  • Liquidity pressures brought on by revenue and expenditure mismatches, particularly for those institutions with weaker financial positions;
  • Expenditure pressures related to the pandemic; and
  • The uneven geographic health recovery from COVID-19 infections and how it affects short- and long-term economic and revenue growth.

Rating Actions To Date

S&P Global Ratings' view on the U.S. not-for-profit higher education sector has been negative for three years, and the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic impacts exacerbate financial pressures colleges and universities were already facing. Measures to contain the pandemic caused most colleges and universities to substantially reduce on-campus activities and send students home in the spring, resulting in a loss of auxiliary revenues and a move to online learning. As a result, on April 30, S&P Global Ratings revised the outlooks to negative from stable and affirmed its ratings on 117 U.S. not-for-profit colleges and universities, and revised the outlooks to stable from positive and affirmed the ratings on 10 other U.S. not-for-profit higher education institutions.

Chart 1


Approximately 40% of the 435 U.S colleges and universities we rate maintain a negative outlook, which reflects our view that there is at least a one-in-three chance that operating and economic conditions will worsen to a degree that affects the ability of the school to maintain credit characteristics in line with the current rating level. Given continued uncertainty around fall 2020 enrollments and fiscal 2021 operating budgets, further rating actions, including downgrades, remain likely.

Chart 2


Pandemic Response Has Had An Unprecedented Impact On Higher Education

We expect the unique nature of the current environment will continue to test colleges and universities in unprecedented ways for the foreseeable future. Uncertainty around the duration of the pandemic, social distancing policies, and potential outbreaks on college campuses this fall will influence students' matriculation decisions, and increase the importance of revenue forecast updates and management teams' ability to adjust budgets. In addition, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned recently that this fall's flu season could compound health-related concerns. Although all states have reopened their economies, there are wide differences in their economic and revenue recovery, which has affected college and university reopening plans. Schools have explored a range of scenarios, and many have announced reopening plans that range from in person to hybrid to online.

Recent state forecast revisions have provided a window into the magnitude of projected revenue shortfalls. Compared with pre-COVID-19 projections, states have revised fiscal 2020 projections downward 3%-18%, and more than half have lowered fiscal 2021 estimates anywhere from 5% to 30%. (see "U.S. States Mid-Year Sector View: States Will Continue To Be Tested In Unprecedented Ways," published July 13, 2020, on RatingsDirect). We expect to see material cuts to higher education operating appropriations as states try to balance their budgets. How much or to what extent will likely be greatly influenced by the amount, form, and timing of additional federal aid that may come from Washington.

Federal Stimulus: Is More Aid Coming?

Despite a record amount of federal stimulus year to date, there has been no recent action on additional federal government aid that could offset state revenue shortfalls. Aid so far has been to reimburse for direct COVID-19 expenditures (see "What the CARES Act Means for Credit in U.S. Public Finance," published April 20, 2020). The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act established a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, which provided $14 billion in relief funds directly to institutions. Notably, the law required that institutions use at least 50% of this allocation to provide emergency financial aid grants directly to students. The other portion of this allocation could be used to offset costs associated with changes to remote instruction delivery due to coronavirus, with some exclusions. For most higher education institutions, lost revenue from room and board and other auxiliary sources was much more material than new costs related to COVID-19. In addition, the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund (Governor's) provided funds to kindergarten-12 education; charter schools; and, to some extent, higher education. The money in the Governor's program is distributed as a block grant at the state level and then allocated at the governor's discretion. While a small number of private institutions we rate applied for and received Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans, eligibility was limited to those schools with fewer than 500 employees. As the virus and enrollment landscapes evolve, support from the federal government will remain a critical part of the overall financial health of colleges and universities.

Economic Recovery Could Be Losing Steam

With reemergence of virus transmission rates nationally, economic uncertainty is elevated and it appears that even the slow recovery S&P Global Economics forecast might be losing steam. (See "U.S. Economic Update: A Recovery At Risk As COVID-19 Surges," July 22, and "Economic Research: The U.S. Faces A Longer And Slower Climb From The Bottom," June 25.) Considering the view that the U.S. is facing a long, slow recovery, and given our expectation that health recovery will be uneven, we believe some states will lag others. The impacts from the current recession and economic environment will vary greatly by state, but for many, it has already, or will bring reductions in state funding for higher education. At the same time, most public colleges and universities have eliminated any tuition increases for fiscal 2021 or substantially reduced earlier planned increases.

Funding for higher education remains below pre-Great Recession levels in many states, and some schools are still coping with the lingering effects of previous state funding cuts on their finances. Although the majority of public universities rely on net tuition revenue for a higher percentage of their overall budget than state funds, these state appropriations still make up a considerable portion of schools' operating budgets, and strain on these resources can have major negative effects. Although decreases in state operating appropriations will range in magnitude, we will continue to monitor state revenue projections and budgets, and any possible adjustments to state funding levels, on a state-by-state basis.

This Will Be A Fall Semester Unlike Any We Have Seen Before

As events have unfolded over the past few months, the question on everyone's mind has been, "What does fall 2020 look like for colleges and universities?" Although we won't have clear visibility until students actually matriculate (in person or online), we know that fall 2020 will look very different from anything we have ever seen before. Challenges presented by COVID-19 have forced many colleges and universities to adjust their strategies for the fall semester. After spending the summer considering a range of scenarios, the majority (50%) of colleges and universities we rate have announced plans to open in the fall with some variation of a hybrid model; only 34% plan to have a fully in-person fall semester. Plans change daily, and much uncertainty remains--as depicted by our rated college and universities' current fall plans displayed in chart 3.

Chart 3


Although the details of each hybrid model vary from institution to institution, most operating models include a blend of in-person instruction supplemented by virtual learning. In some cases, students will be able to choose the number of in-person or online classes consistent with their level of comfort. Many schools are limiting the number of students that can be on campus this fall--prioritizing freshmen and those students for whom being on campus is deemed essential. At the same time, other colleges and universities will open campuses with primarily in-person instruction. Although most of these institutions will adhere to social distancing protocols, and not allow large social gatherings, classes will continue as scheduled. Some of these colleges and universities might also offer students the option of fully remote instruction. In addition, many colleges and universities have changed their schedule to cut fall break, and end classes before Thanksgiving, with students not resuming their academic studies until early in 2021. This will allow students to travel home for the holiday, and take final exams at home, with the hope that this plan will prevent students from traveling during fall break and returning to campus sick. Even with these precautions, having an in-person semester presents risks, in our opinion, especially at large or high-density schools. Ensuring protocols are followed will be key to a safe semester. The more students that are on campus, the harder colleges and universities will have to work to keep facilities clean. Many are attempting to limit access to dining and housing areas as well, which will likely reduce auxiliary revenues. In short, many options are being considered, but almost all institutions have plans in place to transition to online learning should there be coronavirus outbreaks on campus. Just yesterday, after only a week of on-campus operations, UNC Chapel Hill announced swift plans to pivot to remote learning, after the coronavirus spread among students.

For colleges and universities that have decided to continue with online instruction throughout the fall semester, most will not be housing any students. However, a handful will have limited housing available for international students or other students that require it. We expect that auxiliary revenues will be weaker for these institutions. Somewhat dissimilar to their public university peers, we have seen more variation across private institutions' tuition costs for fiscal 2021, with some increasing tuition as planned, while others have offered reduced pricing, no matter the mode of academic instruction. Overall, we expect net tuition revenues will be down across the sector.

Enrollment Pressures: Will Continue After the Pandemic, As Demographics Shift

Over the past few years, college enrollment nationwide has fallen, with the largest impact felt by small- and medium-sized private colleges. U.S. demographics are shifting, and the number of high school graduates is flat--and in some cases declining--because of lower birth rates about 20 years ago. These demographic trends are expected to continue, so the trend of fewer students graduating from high school isn't going away anytime soon. These dynamics were pressuring enrollments pre-COVID-19, and now college and university decisions around fall reopening plans have intensified enrollment risk for fall 2020.

Chart 4


Chart 5


On July 6, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a directive barring international students from remaining in the U.S. if they enrolled solely in online courses this fall. Several days later, on July 14, following several lawsuits led by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the administration rescinded the policy. The policy change would have seriously threatened U.S. college and university fall plans, as most current international students have remained in the U.S. since the spring--but they would not have been able to remain enrolled at many institutions. Although the swift revision was positive news for institutions and students, details have since emerged that indicate this relief does not extend to new international students. Furthermore, an FAQ issued by ICE on July 15 said new international students who are not already in the U.S. should stay in their home country. In our opinion, this poses material risk to institutions that enroll a high percentage of international students and are planning on an all-online fall semester, as they will need to diversify their student mix. While the institutions with the greatest percentages of international students tend to be higher rated schools with significant demand and financial flexibility, these recent events create additional uncertainty for international students planning to enroll in U.S. institutions, and for their respective schools.

Operating Pressures: All Revenue Sources Will Be Challenged In Fiscal 2021

We expect that almost all revenue sources that higher education institutions depend on (including state operating appropriations, tuition revenues, auxiliary revenues, philanthropy, endowment draws, and other sources) will be pressured in the coming year.

Tuition revenues will be lower, with many schools freezing rates

At of the time of this publication, very few schools have indicated that they will lower tuition for fiscal 2021. Many have frozen tuition, and a few are increasing rates. Given expectations for weakened enrollments across the sector, we anticipate that net tuition revenues will be lower in the coming year.

Auxiliary revenues will decline in fiscal 2021

For most institutions, auxiliary revenues (housing, dining, athletic, and other revenues) make up, on average, about 10% of total operating revenues. With plans for social distancing and de-densification of housing and dining systems this fall, coupled with limited athletics and associated revenues (in most cases), in our opinion, schools' auxiliary revenues will be particularly depressed in fiscal 2021. As the charts below indicate, for some schools, auxiliary revenues are much more significant and a material decline could have a negative credit impact.

Chart 6


Chart 7

What about football?

Fall 2020 will likely go down in the annals of college and university sports as the most frustrating season--or non-season--ever. Almost all college sports have been adversely affected in some way by COVID-19 and its potential impact on student athletes' health and the ability of schools to conduct a fall sports program. No sport has garnered more attention, however, than football and its storied role in the athletic programs of many colleges and universities. However, in our view, a very limited football season anticipated at most schools isn't likely to hurt college and university budgets significantly. As we noted above, auxiliary revenues (which include athletics revenues) typically make up only 10% of a college or university's total operating revenue and expense savings from the elimination of team travel, promotion, and personnel costs will likely offset some of the anticipated revenue decline.

For many colleges and universities, athletics programs provide local and national entertainment; aid in recruitment; bolster fundraising; and, in a few cases, actually contribute to the bottom line. For those elite colleges and universities that participate in the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Division 1 sports programs, the impact is most acute. This was quickly driven home by the NCAA's decision in March to cancel the men's basketball tournament (March Madness) and subsequent announcement that it would reduce its distribution of tournament revenue to $225 million from the $600 million that had been budgeted for the 32 conference participants. Even for Division 2 programs, the impact of this action was not insignificant. Earlier this month, Division 2 and 3 programs announced they are cancelling the fall sport championships after the NCAA board of governors directed each division to make a decision on its fall sports championships.

On Aug. 11, two of the prominent Power 5 conferences, The Big 10 and Pac-12, in the NCAA's Division 1 sports program, announced the cancellation of fall football (with the intention to play in the spring of 2021), to the disappointment of many student athletes and fans. The other Power 5 conferences are the Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern Conference, and Big 12. To date, only the Big 12 has announced it will play football; the remaining two conferences are expected to announce a decision shortly. However, the NCAA ruled on Aug. 13 that there will be no Division 1 sports championships this fall for football and a number of other key fall sports. Presumably this means those conferences that do elect to proceed with a football season will only play their regularly scheduled conference games (excluding previously scheduled non-conference opponents). This season will be anything but regular and the conferences electing to play still seem to be juggling their schedules by considering games with independent schools as a possible filler for non-conference opponents that they can no longer play. This will undoubtedly--from a fan perspective--make for a very interesting fall football season and perhaps change some long-held allegiances. From a revenue perspective, the curtailment of athletic activities and events isn't anticipated to be a major budget stressor for institutions--although it could certainly affect local economies. However, it is difficult to ascertain to what extent a continued suspension of athletics might affect recruitment and fundraising. Many colleges and universities use athletics and associated programs as recruitment tools, and this is true at all divisional levels but perhaps more so among lower-division public and private universities. Some of these schools are thought to be more vulnerable because with generally smaller endowments they have fewer financial resources available for athletic scholarships. If the pandemic continues to force curtailment of sports programs beyond fall 2020, many mid-level and smaller college and universities will likely have to drop sports programs other than basketball and football--the two sports that generate the lion's share of most athletics departments' revenue.

Health care accounts for significant revenues for some schools

S&P Global Ratings rates a number of public and private colleges and universities that have, or are affiliated with, substantial health care operations. These colleges and universities typically operate sizable medical schools, conduct groundbreaking medical research, and may own or be affiliated with hospitals and health systems that often serve regional or national markets owing to the breadth of their services. It is not uncommon for these colleges and universities to derive 40%-70%, or in some limited cases more, of total revenue from health care-related operations and research. These college and university medical schools, health care operations, and research are on the front lines of battling the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have faced enormous stress on a human scale, from a supplies and logistics standpoint, and ultimately for their financial resources as well. In recognition of this, the CARES Act awarded significant financial relief to these institutions; we understand approximately $115 billion has been distributed thus far, with most of that amount going to hospitals. We also understand hospitals and certain other health facilities are eligible to seek grants for a limited amount of funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Public Assistance Program disaster relief funds.

Chart 8


Almost all of these institutions are rated in the 'AA' rating category, signifying a very strong ability to make timely payments on financial obligations. A few are rated 'AAA', signifying an extremely strong ability to honor financial commitments on a timely basis. These colleges and universities typically have healthy balance sheets with substantial financial resources that can cushion any disruption in revenue for a number of months. Depending upon the duration of the pandemic, the associated losses from cancelling or postponing elective surgeries and relative time to recoup revenue losses, and implementation of other proactive measures to assure adequate capacity to treat the surge of COVID-19 patients, these ratings and outlooks on these colleges and universities could be affected. However, for many this might not occur until later this year or sometime next year, possibly months after the pandemic has come to an end. In our recent publication, "U.S. Not-For-Profit Acute Health Care Mid-Year Sector View: Recovery Continues, Likely Uneven For The Rest Of The Year," Aug. 13, 2020, we noted that hospitals in most regions are ramping up non-emergent and elective procedures and services, and we don't believe we will see a repeat of the widespread and extreme revenue and margin declines experienced in March and April. Still, over the coming months we expect most of the hospitals we rate will continue treating a baseline level of COVID-19 patients, with additional pressure as regional case rates surge and recede. This unpredictability, coupled with broader economic pressures, could make it difficult for many providers to establish a "new normal," and will lead to a protracted and, in many cases, only partial recovery of lost volumes and revenues.

Complicating matters for a number of these colleges and universities are senior management transitions that are underway, or were only relatively recently completed. A number of institutions are going through key health care mergers, acquisitions, or affiliations that are only in the early implementation stages.

The private university that has garnered the most attention during the pandemic is The Johns Hopkins University and its affiliated health system, whose health professionals developed the tracking system for COVID-19 used to monitor, on a real time basis, the spread of the coronavirus and its outcomes. In addition, public universities such as the University of Washington have been early leaders in the identification of patients carrying the virus and helping state officials formulate a coordinated emergency response.

More expense cuts are likely

In the face of expected revenue declines, most institutions have been curtailing expenses--some of which, like travel and utilities, have been easier to implement--but other non-essential expenses have also been limited. Many schools have instituted hiring freezes and even executed or discussed furloughs and layoffs. Others have looked for further efficiencies in functional consolidations, making changes in class scheduling. We expect that fall enrollments and revised budgets could motivate additional expense cuts. Institutions remain focused on maintaining liquidity and many have increased the availability of lines of credits as a defensive measure to offset any unforeseen expenses.

We expect overall financial operations will become increasingly challenging for more colleges and universities. Although some struggling colleges or universities with valuable real estate, brand, or institutional core competencies will be able to secure an affiliation, merger, or acquisition, we expect to see more closures, in particular among smaller, more regional private liberal arts colleges.

Schools Are Grappling With Disruptions Caused By Event Risk

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) attributes continue to come to the forefront of discussions with higher education obligors. Social and governance factors have historically been the main drivers of rating actions in this sector. Enrollment levels are key social factors for colleges and universities, which we expect will be pressured by COVID-19 impacts. In addition, colleges and universities are grappling with event risk with increasing frequency, whether from campus shootings, management and governance controversies, racial tensions, or sexual assault--and now a pandemic. Higher education institutions also continue to face substantial cybersecurity risks, which have grown with the industry's transition to online learning. For more on how we view cybersecurity risk, see "U.S. Public Finance Issuers Must Be Nimble To Fend Off Cyberattacks Or They Could Face Fallout," Feb. 25, 2020. For our latest ESG report, see "Through The ESG Lens 2.0: A Deeper Dive Into U.S. Public Finance Credit Factors," April 28, 2020.

In our opinion, strong management and governance controls are important, as is a sound enterprise risk management program, and ample financial resources, which may include insurance coverage for specific risks. Although most crisis events represent a significant operational challenge and potentially an immediate headline risk, testing an institution's tactical responsiveness, the long-term effect on a college's or university's creditworthiness often takes several months to emerge. Consequently, it is not the actual event but the institution's ability to respond and adapt to it that determines whether there will be any credit implications. As risks to higher education institutions arise from less traditional areas--scandals, lawsuits, cybersecurity breaches--we believe management and governance need to identify key risks and develop risk mitigation strategies. (For more on how we evaluate event risks and governance factors in our analysis, see "U.S. Higher Education is Learning to Manage its Own Risk," published Dec. 2, 2019.)

U.S. colleges and universities have already faced unprecedented challenges in 2020, with more likely to come. Although many schools entered this recession in a strong fiscal position, the pandemic's severe impact on higher education will last for years. Many of the colleges and universities that we rate have some headroom to absorb the impacts associated with COVID-19 at their current ratings, because they have built up reserves over recent years, hold solid balance sheets, and have relatively low debt levels. However, colleges and universities will face increased downward pressure on current ratings depending on the extent to which economic disruptions associated with COVID-19 persist. We believe there will be greater pressure on those schools with limited revenue and expense flexibility, lack of liquidity or balance sheet cushion, and weaker fundraising capabilities.

Related Research

This report does not constitute a rating action.

Primary Credit Analysts:Jessica L Wood, Chicago (1) 312-233-7004;
Ken W Rodgers, New York (1) 212-438-2087;
Secondary Contact:Laura A Kuffler-Macdonald, New York (1) 212-438-2519;
Research Contributors:Gauri Gupta, Chicago + 1 (312) 233 7010;
Amber L Schafer, Centennial (1) 303-721-4238;
Steven Sather, Centennial;
Pranay Shah, New York + 1 (212) 438 1464;
Adriana Artola, San Francisco + 415-371-5057;
Nicholas K Fortin, Boston + 1 (312) 914 9629;
Mayur Alva, CRISIL Global Analytical Center, an S&P affiliate, Mumbai
Harshal Holkar, CRISIL Global Analytical Center, an S&P affiliate, Mumbai
Manasi Kelkar, CRISIL Global Analytical Center, an S&P Global Ratings affiliate, Mumbai
Ruchika Radhakrishnan, Toronto + 1 (647) 297 0396;
Georgia Dietz

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