Thursday, May 18, 2017

Private liberal arts colleges are discounting tuition by an average of 44 percent--undercutting the credibility of their sticker prices

Rouses Supermarkets, a Louisiana food chain, advertised a wine and spirits sale a few days ago. Three Olives root beer vodka--normally priced at $20 a bottle, was on sale--4 bottles for ten bucks!

Did I rush to my nearest Rouses grocery store to stock up on root beer vodka? No, I did not. Instead I formed a negative opinion of the stuff. I concluded that any vodka that can be purchased on sale for two dollars and fifty cents a bottle is probably not worth $20 a bottle.

Private liberal art colleges are risking their long term viability by slashing their posted tuition prices drastically. Last year, the colleges discounted freshman tuition by an average of 49 percent; and tuition for students as a whole were slashed by an average of 44 percent.

In an informative article for Inside Higher Ed, Rick Seltzer identified  two trends that are driving colleges to heavily discount their tuition prices.  First, students' families need increased levels of financial aid in the wake of the 2008 recession. Second, colleges are heavily competing for students due to a downward demographic trend of fewer college-age students in the population. Ken Redd, research director for the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) was quoted as saying he saw nothing on the horizon that would dissipate those trends.

Not surprisingly, small colleges are discounting tuition more heavily than large comprehensive universities.  At the small schools, freshman tuition is being discounted by more than 50 percent.

According to NACUBO's report, tuition discounting is happening even as colleges raise their sticker prices. Unfortunately, for many colleges, this tactic has not increased net revenue. “If you adjust for inflation, many schools are actually seeing real decreases in net tuition revenue,” Mr. Redd said.

Increased tuition discounts is just another sign that private liberal arts colleges are under an existential threat. Several have closed already, and others are taking drastic action to cut their costs.

Holy Cross College in Indiana sold 75 acres of real estate to Notre Dame to bolster its financial picture even as it struggled to quell rumors that it will soon be closing. Wheeling Jesuit University is encouraging faculty members to retire early.  Mills College, a small women's college in California, is laying of faculty members. Mills is running a $9 million deficit on a $57 million operating budget--clearly not sustainable.

At some colleges, administrators are finding that a smaller and smaller percentage of applicants who are admitted actually show up as students.  Mills for example, admitted 1,242 applicants in 2013-2014; and only 217 applicants actually enrolled. In 2015, the enrollment picture was even bleaker: 639 applicants were admitted and only 139 students actually enrolled.

Some small private colleges will survive in spite of the bleak financial picture. Those that have real estate to sell, like Holy Cross, can keep the wolf from the door for a few more years. Colleges that have large endowments can draw down those funds to meet their budgets.

But ultimately, a lot of small liberal arts colleges are going to close. Their target customers won't be hurt by this trend; they will simply enroll at public institutions. But faculty and staff  from closed colleges are going to find it very difficult to find new jobs.




References

Scott Jaschik. 'Financial Emergency' at Mills. Inside Higher Ed, May 17, 2017.

Rick Seltzer. Discounting Keeps Climbing. Inside Higher Ed, May 15, 2017.

Rick Seltzer. Holy Cross College to Sell Land to Notre Dame. Inside Higher Ed, May 15, 2017.

Rick Seltzer. Early Retirements at Wheeling Jesuit. Inside Higher Ed, May 10, 2017.

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