Although many of our rated independent schools are weathering the COVID-19 pandemic reasonably well, we expect issuers with weaker demand and less financial flexibility will face greater stress in 2021. With a growing bifurcation in credit quality, we expect more negative actions at the lower end of the rating spectrum, while higher-rated issuers will see more stability, supported by healthy demand and resources.
Our rated universe, which includes some of the most prestigious independent schools in the country, has remained largely resilient to the headwinds presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly because flexibility around in-person learning has supported stable-to-growing demand. However, enrollment, particularly within different segments of the student body, has fluctuated, with a direct impact on expected operating performance. Broader industry challenges loom, including affordability, pricing and expense pressure, shifts in competitive markets, demographic changes, and the effects of a slow economic recovery. In our opinion, lower-rated schools, which typically rely more heavily on tuition revenues to balance their budgets, are more vulnerable than higher-rated schools, which have substantial endowment funds to provide flexibility. Management's ability to respond strategically and quickly is key in determining whether these risks will affect overall credit quality. The questions below highlight what we believe will be the main drivers for credit quality over the next year.
Questions That Matter
1. Why is our sector view negative if most independent schools are experiencing stable-to-growing demand?
While public schools have wrestled with limited flexibility around in-person instruction or difficulties in transitioning to virtual learning, all of our rated independent schools are providing some option for in-person learning this school year, supported by larger or more flexible campuses and comparatively smaller student populations. However, this stable-to-growing demand hasn't necessarily led to higher enrollment across the board for the current school year. About 40% of our rated schools experienced some level of enrollment decline for fall 2020, either due to competitive factors, pressures facing certain segments of the student body, or through intentional strategies to de-densify campuses for health and safety reasons. Depending on the trajectory of the vaccine rollout and the effectiveness of COVID-19 containment, independent schools that experienced a bump in enrollment or demand this year could see levels normalize for fall 2021 or beyond, as public and other schools resume full in-person reopening plans. Since independent schools are highly dependent on tuition and student-related revenues, enrollment trends tend to drive financial results.
How this will shape 2021
We expect uneven enrollment trends and shifts in student composition. Enrollment increased by about 1% across our rated universe this year, although these figures ranged from a decline of slightly more than 13% to an increase of slightly above 6%, and the story is very school-specific. Beyond overall enrollment trends, we could start to see sustained shifts in student composition--between boarding, day, virtual, international, or even between preschool and lower school versus upper school enrollment. These student segments have varying impacts on operational budgets and reflect different longer-term considerations, as we expect shifts in enrollment composition will continue.
The geopolitical and public health climate will continue to influence international enrollment trends. More than half of our rated independent schools enroll international students, who are diverse members of the student community and as mostly full-pay students, serve as an important source of revenue. The combination of visa restrictions and the coronavirus led to much uncertainty for this school year, although ultimately a good portion of international students were either able to travel to campus or remain engaged via distance learning. Should uncertainty around travel, public health concerns, or other restrictions extend into fall 2021, this could further affect international student trends.
What we think and why
If history repeats itself, pandemic pressures could cause small schools to get smaller. In the wake of the Great Recession, many small independent schools experienced increased attrition rates. In some ways, the impact of the pandemic could be even more broad than that of a pure financial downturn. This can exacerbate pressures at smaller schools, where each student is critical to sustaining operating margins and financial flexibility, particularly for those schools with declining enrollment, weaker demand, or modest resources. Generally, higher-rated schools have maintained stable-to-growing enrollment this school year, while lower-rated issuers have faced challenges, some of which predated the pandemic but have since become magnified.
Tuition and affordability will likely remain a focus of enrollment decisions. As tuition levels continue to rise against a backdrop of a slow economic recovery, conversations around affordability and long-term financial sustainability could be even more critical to enrollment decisions. The discussions are heightened by the stress rising tuition puts on financial aid budgets, as well as the emergence of less-expensive, high-quality alternatives, which could pose potential enrollment challenges once we return to a new normal post-pandemic.
Value proposition is key, especially with a shifting higher education landscape. Many independent schools have a central mission around college preparedness, and as the higher education sector continues to be affected broadly by the pandemic and other industry trends, competition at top-tier colleges and universities remains intense. If independent schools face difficulties delivering on this value proposition, it could require shifts in program or mission over time to sustain demand.
Demographic trends will have a lasting impact. Shifting demographic trends, with declines in birth rates and school-age populations, most notably in the Northeast and Midwest, are already having an effect. And baseline projections have been affected further due to the pandemic, as many couples have postponed marriage or starting families during this time of uncertainty. This could mean reduced enrollment at younger grades or more shifts in student composition among boarding, day, and international students to offset softness in certain domestic markets.
2. How will recent events affect independent school education in 2021 and credit quality longer term?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a great disruptor with wide-ranging implications and has disproportionately affected low-income communities and populations of color. With many schools committed to enroll a qualified and diverse student body, the pandemic could place a greater burden on these missions due to long-term financial considerations. At the same time, discussions around cybersecurity; cases of sexual misconduct; school safety; and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), among other event risks, remain part of the overall landscape affecting independent schools. Recent events have cemented the relevance of proactively engaging in risk mitigation and prevention strategies, through thoughtful governance practices, strategic financial investments, and adaptive planning.
How this will shape 2021
Financial aid offerings will increase, for schools that are able to support the investment. We expect financial aid will continue to increase as part of a growing effort to attract students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Generally, higher-rated schools have stronger financial resources to support greater levels of financial aid or needs-blind admission policies without significant balance-sheet deterioration over the long term, which could further enhance demand for these schools. On the other end of the spectrum, schools with less financial flexibility might not have the ability to increase financial aid meaningfully without a lasting operational impact.
Event risks and ESG factors remain at the forefront. Management teams are grappling with event risk with increasing frequency. In our opinion, COVID-19 has reinforced the view that schools need strong controls around management and governance now more than ever, while also focusing on a culture of enhanced transparency and inclusivity with all members of the school community. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) attributes remain an important consideration in our credit analysis, with discussions with school leadership teams focused on strategies or policies to mitigate these risks.
What we think and why
Increased support for DEI will continue. In recent years, many schools have hired DEI officers, and expanded efforts to improve policies and practices for a more inclusive school environment. As schools continue to evaluate these initiatives from a strategic standpoint, we expect to see more focus on enhancing programs and adding support services for students, as well as ensuring greater diversity across not only the student body but also among leadership teams, boards, faculty, and staff.
Virtual learning provides flexibility, but it is uncertain if it's here to stay. Independent schools will likely need to maintain some level of program flexibility and virtual learning even into the next school year, but it is unclear if this will be a new opportunity for independent schools to reach a wider base of students long term or if the traditional model of in-person on-campus learning provides a greater value add. As schools continue to explore this new dynamic, we expect the approach will likely depend on a school's individual competitive market. We believe schools need to be ready to innovate to sustain enrollment and demand.
Proactive near- and long-term planning is key to creditworthiness. The pandemic has required leadership teams to shift course quickly and adapt to changing circumstances. Those schools that entered the pandemic with solid practices around management and governance found it easier to maintain this discipline in a fluid environment. While much of the past year has been spent planning for learning in the face of the pandemic, schools must remain focused on both short- and long-term strategic discussions. Some key areas of strategic consideration center on a school's value proposition and mission, ideal size and student mix, the appropriate balance between tuition and financial aid, and efforts to support long-term financial sustainability.
3. How do the fiscal 2020 and historical medians affect our view of the sector?
We believe financial and demand ratios play an important role in measuring trends in credit quality across the independent school sector. Since our rating analysis encompasses both qualitative and quantitative factors, these medians should not be considered thresholds toward achieving a particular rating. To get a sense of trends, we have focused on select median metrics by rating category over the past decade. Our fiscal 2020 medians, by rating category and sectorwide, follow. These median metrics are influenced by shifts in our rated universe, notably the change in the number of ratings in the 'BBB' category from 2010 to 2015, when a number of schools refinanced publicly rated debt with bank debt.
|Medians For U.S. Independent Schools Over Time|
|Freshman selectivity rate (%)||16.7||16.0||16.1||25.5||23.5||19.9||53.8||39.0||41.9||63.4||56.0||57.4|
|Freshman matriculation rate (%)||68.0||70.0||73.2||69.7||63.0||66.4||57.2||66.0||67.0||59.6||60.0||59.3|
|Tuition dependence (%)||50.3||48.4||44.6||59.4||53.6||63.3||70.6||73||73.5||78.5||79.6||86.5|
|Investment & endowment income (%)||19.7||31.1||32.4||5.3||17.6||18.5||2.2||8.7||8.2||1.1||2.5||2.6|
|Tuition discount rate (%)||30.0||31.2||30.2||20.0||22.6||25.9||18.2||19.7||22.3||11.7||18.3||17.1|
|Financial aid burden (%)||16.0||15.4||15.6||12.9||13.4||15.0||12.9||14.0||16.2||9.6||16.1||14.8|
|Endowment market values ($000s)||388,023||573,606||875,266||147,729||147,335||166,252||46,376||68,448||80,205||10,635||27,098||28,046|
|Cash and investments to operations (%)||815.8||928.3||948.6||353.8||537.8||495.5||197.8||213.3||250.0||111.1||143.9||119.9|
|Cash and investments to debt (%)||951.0||1017.3||1181.2||487.3||582.5||564.8||235.6||293.3||416.3||147.3||172.5||202.8|
|Expendable resources to operations (%)||525.1||729.6||690.9||272.4||393.4||270.4||115.4||139.9||137.9||59.2||86.6||64.4|
|Expendable resources to debt (%)||636.7||799.5||757.2||348.8||375.2||339.4||158.9||185.2||207.7||77.3||92.3||92.3|
|Per student ratios|
|Total adjusted operating revenue ($)||87,642||107,841||113,049||59,963||76,897||82,715||37,926||47,701||55,158||33,341||43,673||37,302|
|Total adjusted operating expenses ($)||70,328||89,739||118,605||50,944||54,612||75,815||31,256||37,407||53,074||27,519||33,230||36,882|
|Total debt outstanding ($)||63,859||84,515||98,272||53,942||61,415||68,491||23,852||33,645||28,958||27,552||45,139||28,607|
|Endowment market value ($)||620,352||889,279||1,068,197||169,553||337,937||374,713||73,366||83,399||87,266||15,170||53,170||38,402|
How this will shape 2021
Primary revenue sources could be constrained. Outside of the 'AAA'-rated schools, these medians reflect that tuition dependence, tuition discount rates, and financial aid burdens have increased over time. Across the board, endowments have also increased, resulting in greater endowment support as part of operating budgets. We expect that revenue flexibility could be constrained in the face of uneven enrollment trends, a slow economic recovery, and potential volatility in investment markets. Overall, these metrics show some bifurcation in credit quality, which we expect will be exacerbated by pandemic-related pressures and sector trends overall.
Stronger balance sheets will provide near-term cushion. Although there have been shifts in our rated universe over the past decade, balance sheets are stronger than they were 10 years ago, with growth in endowments and resources providing some degree of flexibility during this uncertain time. In recent years, many schools lowered expected rate-of-return forecasts, reevaluated investment allocations, and reduced endowment draws--with schools continuing to focus on these strategies to maintain long-term financial flexibility.
What we think and why
Given increased pandemic-related costs, operating margins will likely weaken in fiscal 2021. To support fall 2020 in-person and hybrid instruction, leadership teams have engaged in extensive planning around health and safety measures, which have come with increased costs. In addition, some schools are facing the loss of revenue associated with having fewer boarding students on campus, including international students, and the cancellation of summer programs. Although schools have realized expense savings, our rated schools have generally indicated the additional costs have outpaced the savings and many are looking at further cost-containment efforts. Independent schools did not receive much support in terms of federal relief or other funds, beyond access to the Paycheck Protection Program, which 75% of rated schools opted not to apply for. Given the combination of revenue and expense pressures, we expect operating margins could moderate in fiscal 2021.
Uneven economic recovery could affect schools more locally in terms of demand or fundraising. The pandemic has not affected all areas and markets equally. Some states have faced higher unemployment rates and we expect an uneven economic recovery, which could affect demand or fundraising more locally. While we believe many schools have strong alumni and parent networks that are passionate about supporting key strategic priorities, job losses and economic stress can affect a family's financial ability to enroll a child or support fundraising in a meaningful way. Our rated independent schools are heavily dependent on student-related revenues, investment and endowment income, and private gifts--all of which could be affected more broadly by an uneven recovery.
We could see more of a shift to public debt from bank debt. Historically, bank debt or private-placement bonds have been a popular form of financing for independent schools. In our view, while bank debt presents contingent risk due to cross-default or acceleration provisions associated with financial or non-financial covenants, most of our rated schools have sufficient resources to offset this risk. In recent years, given low interest rates and tightening of spreads between bank and public issuance, schools have been refinancing bank debt with public debt or issuing new public debt, a trend we expect will continue. The percentage of rated schools with contingent debt dropped to 35% in 2020 from about 45% in 2018. In the current environment, the stable municipal bond market provides an alternative to bank options that might be less readily available, especially for lower-rated issuers.
As of Dec. 31, 2020, S&P Global Ratings maintained 42 public independent school ratings, ranging from 'AAA' to 'BB'. The majority of our ratings (about 80%) are in the 'A' category or higher; the remainder are in the 'BBB' category, with only one rating in the speculative-grade category at 'BB'. The majority of our ratings carry a stable outlook. Currently, there are four ratings on negative outlook, three of which were assigned after the onset of the pandemic, due to enrollment challenges and financial pressures. There are no ratings on a positive outlook, reflecting our view of macro trends across the sector. With about 10% of our ratings on a negative outlook, the outlook distribution reinforces our view of the sector for 2021.
In terms of rating activity in 2020, we lowered one rating in the speculative-grade category from 'BB+' to 'BB'. We added two ratings, one in the 'A' category and one in the 'BBB' category. We also withdrew two ratings, one rated 'AAA' and the other rated 'A', as the rated bonds either matured or were paid off. The trend of upgrades to downgrades within the sector had been favorable from 2016 to 2019, reflecting good financial performance, moderating debt, and growth in resources, but due to the pressures exacerbated by COVID-19, downgrades outpaced upgrades in 2020. While our rated independent schools have experienced credit stability and resiliency over time, we believe we could see rating pressure, particularly for lower-rated issuers, depending on the trajectory of the pandemic and the length of the economic recovery.
Fiscal 2020 Medians By Rating Category
Overall, the medians generally tend to improve by rating category, although there can be some shifts due to the small sample size and rating movement. In 2020, the net impact of our new ratings and withdrawals meant that we added one rating in the 'BBB' category and withdrew one rating at the 'AAA' level, with some impact on our category-level and sectorwide medians. We did not include ratios for the 'BB' category, as there is only one school at this rating level.
Outside of overall enrollment, which ranges across various rating levels, all other medians generally seem to trend according to rating category. Overall demand metrics are strongest for 'AAA'-rated schools, with 'BBB' category medians reflecting more modest freshman selectivity and matriculation rates. As expected, the 'AAA'-rated schools, which hold significant endowments and garner healthy fundraising support, have the greatest revenue diversity with the least dependence on tuition, and greater support from investment and endowment income, as well as private gifts. On the other end of the rating scale, the 'BBB'-category schools reflect the greatest dependence on tuition income, with the least support from endowment and fundraising.
Many of the other key financial ratios track according to rating category, including endowment market values and financial resource ratios. In addition, while higher-rated schools tend to have greater amounts of debt outstanding, operating budgets also tend to be larger, reflecting maximum annual debt service burdens that are manageable overall across the rating categories. In addition, capital expenses tend to be greater at higher rating levels, likely reflecting the availability of resources for supporting such needs, as well as campuses that demand such investment.
|Fiscal 2020 Medians For U.S. Independent Schools|
|Freshman selectivity rate (%)||16.1||19.9||41.9||57.4|
|Freshman matriculation rate (%)||73.2||66.4||67.0||59.3|
|Tuition dependence (%)||44.6||63.3||73.5||86.5|
|Investment & endowment income (%)||32.4||18.5||8.2||2.6|
|Private gifts (%)||10.2||10.1||7.1||2.7|
|Financial aid and expense ratios|
|Tuition discount rate (%)||30.2||25.9||22.3||17.1|
|Financial aid burden (%)||15.6||15.0||16.2||14.8|
|Endowment market values ($000s)||875,266||166,252||80,205||28,046|
|Total debt outstanding ($000s)||72,828||35,527||29,550||24,756|
|Contingent liability ($000s)||55,955||17,326||15,879||19,327|
|MADS burden (%)||3.84||5.73||5.22||4.08|
|Average age of plant (years)||13.4||14.0||14.2||13.3|
|Annual capital expenses ($000s)||11,647||4,237||3,887||3,085|
|Cash and investments to operations (%)||948.6||495.5||250.0||119.9|
|Cash and investments to debt (%)||1181.2||564.8||416.3||202.8|
|Expendable resources to operations (%)||690.9||270.4||137.9||64.4|
|Expendable resources to debt (%)||757.2||339.4||207.7||92.3|
|Net operating income (%)||2.0||7.2||1.5||2.8|
|Per student ratios|
|Net tuition revenue per student ($)||39,152||40,184||30,190||25,794|
|Total adjusted operating revenue ($)||113,049||82,715||55,158||37,302|
|Total adjusted operating expenses ($)||118,605||75,815||53,074||36,882|
|Total debt outstanding ($)||98,272||68,491||28,958||28,607|
|Expendable resources ($)||767,899||197,167||61,065||19,482|
|Endowment market value ($)||1,068,197||374,713||87,266||38,402|
|*Excludes 'BB' category medians as there is only one school at this rating level.|
Overall, our sectorwide medians reflect stability over the past three years. Median headcount has been gradually increasing, while demand metrics have held fairly steady, with only minimal shifts from year to year. While some schools have experienced enrollment growth, the increase in median enrollment is also due to changes in our rated universe. In 2020, we added two new ratings, each commanding a larger enrollment base compared with the two ratings withdrawn during the year.
Generally, fiscal 2020 was a favorable year financially. Despite partial room and board refunds due to the shift to distance learning in the spring, many schools experienced savings associated with campus closures and strong fundraising results that exceeded expectations. Investment markets also rebounded following the initial downturn, supporting endowment growth and favorable market returns. Finally, the median for average age of plant seems to be rising, and while some schools are taking advantage of low interest rates to engage in campus projects, others that are facing challenges could defer projects during this uncertain time.
|Sectorwide Ratios For U.S. Independent Schools|
|Freshman selectivity rate (%)||38.3||33.5||34.4|
|Freshman matriculation rate (%)||67.1||66.4||68.1|
|Tuition dependence (%)||69.3||69.9||68.8|
|Investment & endowment income (%)||9.1||10.5||10.6|
|Private gifts (%)||6.7||6.1||5.9|
|Financial aid and expense ratios|
|Tuition discount rate (%)||22.8||23.3||21.9|
|Financial aid burden (%)||15.4||15.8||14.9|
|Endowment market values ($000s)||101,390||103,444||103,582|
|Total debt outstanding ($000s)||28,789||32,006||30,723|
|Contingent liability ($000s)||22,822||22,156||22,651|
|MADS burden (%)||5.22||5.37||5.12|
|Average age of plant (years)||14.0||13.2||13.2|
|Annual capital expenses ($000s)||3,978||4,675||4,591|
|Cash and investments to operations (%)||263.0||270.6||296.7|
|Cash and investments to debt (%)||429.3||420.1||408.5|
|Expendable resources to operations (%)||151.6||185.7||189.7|
|Expendable resources to debt (%)||217.5||239.6||260.5|
|Net operating income (%)||3.4||2.7||4.3|
|Per student ratios|
|Net tuition revenue per student ($)||36,127||37,470||35,817|
|Total adjusted operating revenue ($)||61,274||66,476||62,505|
|Total adjusted operating expenses ($)||59,315||61,659||60,445|
|Total debt outstanding ($)||39,473||42,736||44,994|
|Expendable resources ($)||83,141||93,809||94,353|
|Endowment market value ($)||122,190||144,734||144,699|
|Independent School Ratings By Category As Of Dec. 31, 2020|
|Phillips Academy Andover||MA||AAA||Stable|
|Phillips Exeter Academy||NH||AAA||Stable|
|St. Paul's School||NH||AAA||Stable|
|St. Andrew's School of Delaware||DE||AA+||Stable|
|The Hockaday School||TX||AA||Stable|
|Horace Mann Sch||NY||AA-||Stable|
|Roxbury Latin School||MA||AA-||Stable|
|Belmont Hill School||MA||A+||Stable|
|Emma Willard School||NY||A+||Stable|
|The Haverford School||PA||A||Stable|
|Kent Denver School||CO||A||Stable|
|Norwich Free Academy||CT||A||Stable|
|Saint Xavier High School||OH||A||Stable|
|Ethical Culture Fieldston School||NY||A-||Stable|
|Garrison Forest School||MD||A-||Negative|
|Dexter Southfield School||MA||BBB+||Stable|
|Providence Day School*||NC||BBB+||Stable|
|Carolina Friends School||NC||BBB+||Stable|
|Vail Mountain School||CO||BBB-||Negative|
|*Rating withdrawn in February 2021, as rated bonds are no longer outstanding.|
|Glossary Of Ratios And Terms|
|Freshman selectivity rate (%)||Number of new students accepted/total number of applications|
|Freshman matriculation rate (%)||Number of new students enrolling/number of students accepted|
|Tuition (%)||Gross tuition and fees/total adjusted operating revenues|
|Investment & endowment income (%)||Endowment income and investment income/total adjusted operating revenues|
|Private gifts (%)||Private gifts/total adjusted operating revenues|
|Financial aid and expense ratios|
|Financial aid burden (%)||Total financial aid costs/total adjusted operating expenses|
|Tuition discount (%)||Total financial aid costs/gross tuition and fees|
|Instruction (%)||Instructional costs/total adjusted operating expenses|
|Total outstanding debt ($000s)||Par amount of all outstanding debt|
|Maximum annual debt service (MADS) burden (%)||MADS/total adjusted operating expenses|
|Average age of plant (years)||Accumulated depreciation/depreciation expenses|
|Financial resources ratios|
|Cash and investments to operations (%)||Total cash and investments/total adjusted operating expenses|
|Expendable resources to operations (%)||Expendable resources/total adjusted operating expenses|
|Cash and investments to debt (%)||Total cash and investments/total debt|
|Expendable resources to debt (%)||Expendable resources/total debt|
|Net operating income (%)||Net adjusted operating income/total adjusted operating expense|
|Per student ratios|
|Net tuition revenue per student ($)||Net tuition revenue/total headcount|
|Total adjusted operating revenue per student ($)||Total adjusted operating revenue/total headcount|
|Total adjusted operating expense per student ($)||Total adjusted operating expense/total headcount|
|Total debt outstanding per student ($)||Total debt outstanding/total headcount|
|Expendable resources per student ($)||Expendable resources/total headcount|
|Endowment market value per student ($)||Endowment market value/total headcount|
|Net tuition revenue||Gross tuition and fees less financial aid|
|Total adjusted operating revenues||Unrestricted revenues less realized and unrealized gains/losses and financial aid|
|Total adjusted operating expenses||Unrestricted expenses plus financial aid expense|
|Cash and investments||Cash plus short-term and long-term investments|
|Expendable resources||Net assets without donor restrictions plus net assets available for appropriation less (net property plant and equipment less outstanding long-term debt)|
- Within Reach: How Stimulus Proposals Lift U.S. GDP To Pre-Pandemic Levels, Feb. 1, 2021
- Outlook for Global Not-For-Profit Higher Education: Empty Chairs At Empty Tables, Jan. 20, 2021
- Through The ESG Lens 2.0: A Deeper Dive Into U.S. Public Finance Credit Factors, April 28, 2020
This report does not constitute a rating action.
|Primary Credit Analyst:||Avani K Parikh, New York + 1 (212) 438 1133;|
|Secondary Contacts:||Shivani Singh, New York + 1 (212) 438 3120;|
|Mikayla Mahan, Centennial;|
|Mel Brown, New York + 1 (312) 233 7204;|
|Jessica L Wood, Chicago + 1 (312) 233 7004;|
|Research Contributors:||Arpita Ray, CRISIL Global Analytical Center, an S&P affiliate, Mumbai|
|Aditi Jain, CRISIL Global Analytical Center, an S&P affiliate, Mumbai|
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