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U.S. Public College And University Fiscal 2019 Median Ratios Remain Generally Stable Although Operating Stress Looms


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U.S. Public College And University Fiscal 2019 Median Ratios Remain Generally Stable Although Operating Stress Looms

The key median indicators for U.S. not-for-profit public colleges and universities were generally stable in fiscal 2019. The trend of mounting pressure on lower-rated entities continued; however, higher-rated institutions mostly maintained their overall enrollment, demand, and financial profiles. The fiscal 2019 metrics were recorded before the unprecedented disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused in the sector. We expect to see the effects of operational and financial challenges related to the pandemic reflected beginning with the fiscal 2020 median credit metrics, with more pronounced changes likely in fiscal 2021. Although U.S. not-for-profit higher education entities faced increasing operational and financial challenges even before the pandemic, we believe fallout related to COVID-19 will both accelerate and amplify these pressures.

Due to the duration of COVID-19 and the gradual, uneven economic recovery, public colleges and universities face increasing challenges in many, if not all of their revenue streams. When colleges and universities sent students home in spring 2020, refunds were for services such as housing, dining, and parking. In addition, some states responded to budget pressures with end-of-year cuts to operating appropriations. This operating pressure was offset by management teams cutting discretionary spending, pausing or reevaluating capital projects, instituting layoffs or furloughs, and the receipt of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) funding. While fiscal 2020 budgets were undoubtedly affected, we expect to see an even more pronounced effect on operating margins in fiscal 2021, with many institutions forecasting pressured net tuition revenue (due to lower enrollments, limited tuition increases in fall 2020, more financial aid, and a higher number of in-state students), a lower level of state support (as states grapple to balance budgets as a result of suppressed economic activity due to the pandemic), lower auxiliary revenues (due to de-densified campuses and deferral or cancellation of athletic and campus events), and potential for sluggish fundraising in light of economic uncertainty. In recognition of this pressure, we revised our rating outlooks on a number of higher education institutions (both public and private) to negative in April 2020 (see "Outlooks Revised On Certain U.S. Not-For-Profit Higher Education Institutions Due To COVID-19 Impact," published April 30, 2020, on RatingsDirect). We also recently published a mid-year update that reflects our view of the pressures the sector faces ("Not-For-Profit Higher Education Mid-Year Sector View: Fall 2020 Enrollments will Drive Credit," Aug. 18, 2020).

Ratings Distribution And Characteristics

The sample size for our public college and university median ratios for fiscal 2019 consists of 145 ratings (table 1) ranging from 'AAA' to 'CC.' As in previous years, fiscal 2019 median values across rating categories generally follow rating distribution, with higher-rated institutions having stronger enrollment and financial metrics (table 2). Higher-rated institutions tend to have broader name recognition, more diverse revenue streams, and healthier available resources. Lower-rated entities, however, typically have less enrollment and demand flexibility as measured by selectivity, student quality, and geographic reach. In addition, lower-rated entities are limited by more modest available resources and higher reliance on one or two key revenue streams such as student-generated revenue (tuition and auxiliary revenue) and state funding. In general, lower-rated entities have faced compressed operating margins in recent years due to enrollment pressure related to shifting demographics; stagnant or lower levels of state support (as measured by a percentage of operating budgets); and limited ability to curb the growth of operating expenses, such as instruction, benefits, and financial aid.

The 'AAA', 'BBB', and speculative grade rating categories are relatively small, with sample sizes of seven, 11, and seven, respectively. Therefore, changes in median metrics within these categories can be driven by some variations year to year, rather than a wholesale change in credit quality.

Since March 2020, the majority of rating actions on public colleges and universities have been negative outlook revisions; therefore, there has been limited change in the overall rating distribution since the last time our medians were published. (chart 1 and chart 2) The few rating changes that have occurred since the onset of the pandemic have been the result of previous weakening in credit fundamentals and/or the issuance of material new debt. While rating changes have been minimal to date, the percentage of public college and universities that maintain a negative outlook is much higher than when our medians were last published (41% compared with 8% in June 2019). (chart 3)

In general, public universities follow standards promulgated by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB). However, a few public institutions report financials according to the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). For comparability among financial metrics, we have excluded the financial ratios of public institutions under FASB reporting in our analysis, but have included enterprise profile data. All data included is as of Oct. 15, 2020.

Although we rate many other types of debt for public universities, such as housing or other auxiliary secured debt, and provide numerous confidential ratings, the data in this report include only ratings that reflect the underlying credit characteristics of the university, college, or system. In addition, while we hold public, unlimited student fee-equivalent ratings on many community colleges and community college systems, for this report, we have included only our ratings on four-year institutions or systems that primarily constitute four-year programs, to maintain data consistency and enable a meaningful comparison between similar entities.

We publish these medians as general benchmarks and measures to observe broader industry trends. However, the credit analysis for any particular institution involves an assessment of many qualitative factors that are beyond the scope of this article. Therefore, these medians should not be considered thresholds to achieve a particular rating.

Table 1

Selected Sectorwide Ratios For Public Colleges And Universities
2019 2018 2017 2016
Sample size 145 149 150 152
FTE enrollment
Median 19,426 19,541 19,730 19,446
Mean 35,929 35,268 34,737 33,766
FTE change (%)
Median (0.6) (1.0) 1.5 6.2
Mean 1.9 1.5 2.9 13.2
Undergraduates as a % of total enrollment
Median 81.5 81.2 81.9 81.5
Mean 81.6 81.0 81.1 80.7
Freshman acceptance rate (%)
Median 72.7 71.8 71.4 71.7
Mean 70.4 69.9 68.8 69.2
Average SAT scores
Median 1,162 1,147 1,115 1113
Mean 1,172 1,152 1,118 1117
Average ACT scores
Median 24.0 23.4 23.8 23.4
Mean 24.3 23.8 24.0 23.8
Retention rate (%)
Median 80.3 80.6 79.9 79.5
Mean 80.3 80.0 80.2 80.2
Six-year graduation rate (%)
Median 59.0 56.3 56.0 55.9
Mean 60.7 58.3 57.5 57.4
In-state students (%)
Median 79.6 79.0 79.0 78.6
Mean 76.5 76.5 76.7 76.6
Net adjusted operating income (%)
Median 0.4 0.5 (0.1) 0.1
Mean 0.5 0.6 0.1 (0.4)
State appropriations to revenue (%)
Median 21.1 21.5 21.9 21.5
Mean 22.1 23.0 22.4 22.2
Student-generated revenue (%)
Median 47.3 47.6 48.1 49.0
Mean 45.4 45.1 46.4 46.5
Grants and contracts to revenue (%)
Median 10.1 9.7 10.0 10.5
Mean 11.4 11.1 11.3 11.5
Gifts and pledges to revenue (%)
Median 2.0 1.6 1.7 2.3
Mean 2.2 2.1 2.0 2.6
Investment and endowment income to revenue (%)
Median 1.1 1.0 1.0 0.5
Mean 1.6 1.8 1.8 0.8
Financial aid burden as a percentage of expenses (%)
Median 9.3 9.0 8.6 8.8
Mean 9.7 9.5 9.0 8.9
Instruction expense as a percentage of expenses (%)
Median 26.7 26.9 27.6 26.7
Mean 27.6 27.8 28.8 28.3
Tuition discount rate (%)
Median 26.2 24.8 24.4 23.6
Mean 27.5 25.7 25.0 24.7
University endowment market value ($000s)
Median 256,077 280,997 246,148 212,303
Mean 1,207,481 1,279,107 1,129,360 944,920
Foundation endowment market value ($000s)
Median 235,008 224,648 174,936 161,329
Mean 676,698 728,267 601,980 505,407
Cash and investments to expenses (%)
Median 49.1 48.7 47.4 48.8
Mean 59.0 60.1 56.9 56.0
Cash and investments to debt (%)
Median 109.4 117.0 116.4 111.0
Mean 146.1 157.1 145.9 140.3
Adjusted UNA to expenses (%)
Median 33.8 32.1 31.4 29.7
Mean 35.0 34.7 34.1 33.0
Adjusted UNA to debt (%)
Median 71.9 79.2 74.1 65.0
Mean 91.9 99.1 92.6 84.2
Total outstanding debt ($000s)
Median 315,113 322,940 284,846 296,175
Mean 924,263 869,479 806,791 799,187
Average age of plant (years)
Median 14.2 14.0 13.7 13.3
Mean 14.8 14.5 14.2 14.0
MADS burden (%)
Median 4.1 4.2 4.1 3.8
Mean 4.4 4.6 4.3 4.3
Total debt per FTE ($)
Median 17,216 16,167 15,320 15,292
Mean 22,174 20,544 20,383 20,243
State appropriations per FTE ($)
Median 7,929 7,704 7,666 7,409
Mean 8,727 8,734 8,393 8,043
Endowment per FTE ($)
Median 25,187 21,899 18,376 19,578
Mean 40,658 36,637 34,828 31,355
FTE--Full-time equivalent. MADS--Maximum annual debt service. UNA--Unrestricted net assets.

Table 2

Selected Fiscal 2019 Ratios For Public Colleges And Universities
Rating AAA AA A BBB SG Sectorwide
Sample size 7 53 67 11 7 145
Total FTE enrollment
Median 59,133 36,667 14,995 4,440 5,892 19,426
Mean 80,246 63,922 16,621 4,260 14,233 35,929
Undergraduates as a % of total enrollment
Median 74.0 78.8 82.9 94.6 79.4 81.5
Mean 73.5 78.9 82.6 94.2 80.1 81.6
Freshman acceptance rate (%)
Median 57.9 69.6 77.2 73.8 79.4 72.7
Mean 48.5 68.5 73.8 76.5 64.6 70.4
Average SAT scores
Median 1,320 1,222 1,105 969 943 1,162
Mean 1,311 1,227 1,136 994 995 1,172
Average ACT scores
Median 28.9 25.9 23.2 20.8 20.5 24.0
Mean 29.0 25.9 23.7 20.6 20.3 24.3
Retention rate (%)
Median 95.0 85.7 77.1 68.7 65.3 80.3
Mean 93.2 86.2 78.1 67.4 64.9 80.3
Six-year graduation rate (%)
Median 85.8 69.6 53.2 44.5 43.0 59.0
Mean 83.7 69.6 55.3 45.0 37.5 60.7
In-state students (%)
Median 70.0 74.8 82.3 87.9 88.1 79.6
Mean 69.9 71.9 79.1 81.6 86.6 76.5
Net adjusted operating margin (%)
Median 1.9 1.5 (0.3) (3.1) (1.0) 0.4
Mean 2.3 1.7 0.3 (4.3) 0.9 0.5
State appropriations to revenue (%)
Median 13.8 18.3 22.7 25.9 38.7 21.1
Mean 12.3 19.1 22.7 27.9 37.6 22.1
Student-generated revenue (%)
Median 28.6 41.2 54.1 52.3 40.9 47.3
Mean 32.5 40.7 50.6 48.9 36.7 45.4
Grants and contracts to revenue (%)
Median 14.4 12.1 8.2 6.4 7.4 10.1
Mean 14.9 14.2 10.2 6.2 9.2 11.4
Gifts and pledges to revenue (%)
Median 3.8 2.7 2.2 1.6 0.8 2.0
Mean 3.7 3.1 2.5 2.3 0.8 2.2
Investment and endowment income to revenue (%)
Median 6.2 1.4 1.2 0.6 0.6 1.1
Mean 6.9 1.8 1.3 1.0 0.7 1.6
Financial aid burden as a percentage of expenses (%)
Median 4.7 8.0 10.4 12.7 8.1 9.3
Mean 5.8 8.7 10.8 11.7 9.0 9.7
Instruction expense as a percentage of expenses (%)
Median 21.7 24.9 27.6 28.9 31.6 26.7
Mean 21.7 25.1 28.3 37.0 30.8 27.6
Tuition discount rate (%)
Median 24.6 26.9 25.3 32.9 29.1 26.2
Mean 23.0 28.1 26.2 33.4 33.1 27.5
University endowment market value ($000s)
Median 5,066,270 1,006,154 131,376 29,003 53,688 256,077
Mean 10,137,475 1,429,572 267,418 33,566 71,660 1,207,481
Foundation endowment market value ($000s)
Median 1,635,453 782,587 159,566 23,899 85,360 235,008
Mean 1,659,478 1,319,061 279,440 34,008 99,444 676,698
Cash and investments to expenses (%)
Median 145.3 56.4 46.0 28.9 21.1 49.1
Mean 159.5 69.4 48.8 28.0 29.1 59.0
Cash and investments to debt (%)
Median 332.8 169.9 88.4 58.7 96.4 109.4
Mean 343.4 181.9 117.7 63.1 91.5 146.1
Adjusted UNA to expenses (%)
Median 65.7 36.7 33.5 9.1 9.3 33.8
Mean 69.6 38.9 34.2 9.5 19.2 35.0
Adjusted UNA to debt (%)
Median 149.2 92.9 57.2 22.3 40.1 71.9
Mean 145.8 109.5 86.6 28.0 62.7 91.9
Total outstanding debt ($000s)
Median 2,119,442 808,057 224,613 54,080 81,970 315,113
Mean 3,115,674 1,681,017 341,314 76,172 156,565 924,263
Average age of plant (years)
Median 12.6 13.2 15.3 16.4 18.4 14.2
Mean 12.9 13.3 15.3 18.1 18.4 14.8
MADS burden (%)
Median 3.2 3.6 4.5 4.5 4.4 4.1
Mean 3.4 3.7 4.9 4.4 5.9 4.4
Total debt per FTE ($)
Median 40,364 20,282 15,681 11,481 10,518 17,216
Mean 42,088 24,937 19,387 17,436 16,230 22,174
State appropriations per FTE ($)
Median 7,313 9,209 6,490 7,632 13,383 7,929
Mean 9,866 9,498 7,839 7,223 12,815 8,727
Endowment per FTE ($)
Median 160,386 36,741 21,185 12,301 13,329 25,187
Mean 151,180 51,279 27,181 14,416 16,964 40,658
SG--Speculative grade. FTE--Full-time equivalent. MADS--Maximum annual debt service. UNA--Unrestricted net assets.

Chart 1


Chart 2


Chart 3


Table 3

Ratings On U.S. Public Colleges And Universities By Rating Category As Of Oct. 15, 2020
State Outlook
Indiana University IN Stable
Purdue University IN Stable
Texas A&M University System TX Stable
University of Michigan MI Stable
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill NC Stable
University of Texas System TX Stable
University of Virginia VA Stable
Florida State University FL Stable
Florida State University System FL Stable
Texas Tech University System TX Stable
Texas A&M at College Station TX Stable
University of Delaware DE Stable
University of Florida FL Stable
University of Missouri System MO Negative
University of Pittsburgh PA Stable
University of Utah UT Stable
University of Washington WA Stable
University System of Maryland MD Stable
Arizona State University AZ Stable
Clemson University SC Stable
College of William & Mary VA Stable
Iowa State University of Science and Technology IA Stable
Michigan State University MI Negative
North Carolina State University at Raleigh NC Stable
Ohio State University OH Stable
Pennsylvania State University PA Stable
State University of Iowa IA Stable
University of Alabama AL Stable
University of Alabama Birmingham AL Stable
University of California System CA Stable
University of Houston TX Stable
University of Kentucky KY Stable
University of Minnesota MN Stable
University of Nebraska System NE Stable
University of South Florida FL Stable
Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University VA Stable
Auburn University AL Stable
Ball State University IN Stable
California State University System CA Stable
City University of New York NY Stable
East Carolina University NC Negative
Florida International University FL Stable
Minnesota State Colleges & Universities MN Stable
Nevada System of Higher Education NV Stable
North Dakota State University ND Stable
Oklahoma State University OK Stable
South Dakota State University System SD Stable
State University of New York NY Stable
University of Alabama Huntsville AL Stable
University of Arizona AZ Stable
University of Central Florida FL Stable
University of Cincinnati OH Stable
University of Kansas KS Negative
University of Maine System ME Stable
University of Massachusetts MA Negative
University of New Mexico NM Stable
University of Oregon OR Negative
University of Wyoming WY Stable
University System of New Hampshire NH Stable
Virginia Commonwealth University VA Negative
Boise State University ID Stable
Bowling Green State University OH Stable
Central Michigan University MI Stable
Cleveland State University OH Negative
Colorado School of Mines CO Negative
Colorado State University System CO Stable
Ferris State University MI Stable
Florida Atlantic University FL Stable
Grand Valley State University MI Stable
Kansas State University KS Negative
Kent State University OH Stable
Missouri State University MO Negative
Montana State University MT Stable
Morgan State University MD Negative
New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology NM Negative
New Mexico State University NM Stable
Northern Arizona University AZ Negative
Ohio University OH Stable
Old Dominion University VA Stable
Rutgers University NJ Negative
Temple University PA Stable
Troy University AL Stable
University of Alaska AK Negative
University of Central Missouri MO Negative
University of Connecticut CT Stable
University of Louisville KY Negative
University of North Carolina at Charlotte NC Stable
University of North Carolina at Greensboro NC Stable
University of Oklahoma OK Negative
University of Rhode Island RI Negative
University of South Alabama AL Negative
University of Vermont & State Agricultural College VT Stable
Washington State University WA Stable
Wayne State University MI Negative
Youngstown State University OH Stable
College of New Jersey NJ Negative
Metropolitan State University of Denver CO Negative
Minot State University ND Stable
Nebraska State College NE Negative
New Jersey Institute of Technology NJ Negative
Northern Kentucky University KY Negative
Northern Michigan University MI Stable
Ramapo College NJ Negative
Rowan University NJ Negative
Saginaw Valley State University MI Stable
Southeast Missouri State University MO Negative
University of Idaho ID Stable
University of North Alabama AL Negative
University of North Florida FL Negative
University of Northern Iowa IA Stable
University of Southern Indiana IN Stable
University of Toledo OH Negative
West Virginia University WV Stable
Western Michigan University MI Stable
Worcester State University MA Stable
Eastern Kentucky University KY Negative
Illinois State University IL Negative
Indiana University of Pennsylvania PA Negative
Jacksonville State University AL Negative
Kean University NJ Negative
Pittsburg State University KS Stable
University of Illinois IL Stable
University of Louisiana at Lafayette LA Negative
University of Montevallo AL Negative
University of North Carolina at Pembroke NC Negative
University of Northern Colorado CO Negative
Western Kentucky University KY Negative
Fayetteville State University NC Negative
Lake Superior State University MI Negative
Longwood University VA Negative
Mayville State University ND Negative
Missouri Western State University MO Negative
Nicholls State University LA Negative
Valley City State University ND Stable
Vermont State College VT Negative
Winston-Salem State University NC Negative
Missouri Southern State University MO Negative
Delaware State University DE Negative
Speculative Grade
Governors State University IL Negative
Southern Illinois University IL Negative
Northeastern Illinois University IL Negative
Western Illinois University IL Negative
Eastern Illinois University IL Negative
Alabama State University AL Stable
University of Puerto Rico PR Negative

Table 4

Glossary Of Ratios And Terms
Metric or Ratio Definition
Enrollment and demand ratios
FTE enrollment Total students enrolled on a full-time equivalent basis
Percent undergraduate (%) Total number of undergraduate students/total students
Freshman acceptance rate (%) Number of freshman accepted/total number of freshman applications
Average SAT scores Average combined math and reading SAT scores for entering freshman
Average ACT scores Average ACT scores for entering freshman
Retention rate (%) Freshmen students who matriculated for sophomore year/total freshman who completed their first year
Six-year graduation rate (%) Students who graduate from the university within 6 years/total students in the freshman cohort
Percent in-state students (%) Students enrolled who come from within the state/ total students enrolled
Financial performance
Net adjusted operating margin (%) Total adjusted operating income/total adjusted operating expenses
Revenue diversity
State appropriations (%) Total state operating appropriations/ total adjusted operating revenues
Student-generated revenue (%) Gross tuition and fees + auxiliary revenues /total adjusted operating revenues
Grants & contracts (%) Government grants & contracts/total adjusted operating revenues
Gifts & pledges (%) Gifts & pledges/total adjusted operating revenues
Investment & endowment income (%) Endowment spending income & investment income/total adjusted operating revenues
Financial aid and expense ratios
Financial aid burden (%) Total financial aid expense/ total adjusted operating expenses
Instruction (%) Instructional expense/ total adjusted operating expenses
Tuition discount rate (%) Total financial aid expense/ gross tuition revenue
University endowment market value ($000s) Market value of endowment as of FYE
Foundation endowment market value ($000s) Market value of university foundation as of FYE
Financial resource ratios
Cash & investments to expenses (%) Total cash & investments/total adjusted operating expenses
Adjusted unrestricted net assets to expenses (%) Adjusted UNA / total adjusted operating expenses
Cash & investments to debt (%) Total cash & investments/total debt
Adjusted unrestricted net assets to debt (%) Adjusted UNA/total debt
Debt ratios
Total outstanding debt ($000s) Outstanding debt
MADS burden (%) Maximum annual debt service/total adjusted operating expenses
Average age of plant Accumulated depreciation/depreciation expenses (years)
Full-time equivalent ratios
Total debt per FTE ($) Total debt/FTE students
State appropriations per FTE ($) State appropriations/ FTE students
Endowment per FTE ($) Market value endowment/FTE students
Total adjusted operating revenues* Total operating revenues + institutionally funded financial aid + state appropriations + federal and state grants + endowment spending - realized and unrealized gains.
Total adjusted operating expenses Total operating expenses + institutionally funded financial aid + interest expense - non cash pension and OPEB expenses
Adjusted unrestricted net assets (UNA) UNA + UNA of foundation + debt service reserves + LT Pension and OPEB liabilities
Cash & investments Total cash, short term and long term investments
*Adjustments vary based on audit presentation.

This report does not constitute a rating action.

Primary Credit Analyst:Amber L Schafer, Centennial + 1 (303) 721 4238;
Secondary Contacts:Laura A Kuffler-Macdonald, New York (1) 212-438-2519;
Jessica L Wood, Chicago (1) 312-233-7004;
Research Contributors:Nicholas K Fortin, Boston + 1 (312) 914 9629;
Sean M Wiley, Chicago + 1 (312) 233 7050;
Manasi Kelkar, CRISIL Global Analytical Center, an S&P Global Ratings affiliate, Mumbai

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