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Falling Stock Markets and College Budgets: Mergers & Bankruptcies on the Horizon?


Forbes posted an article on October 22, foretelling hard times in the country’s higher education industry.  With falling stockmarkets, declining endowments, and some colleges having loaded up with debt in the past decade or so, the article predicts that some colleges may be swallowed up by financially stronger competitors, or will at the very least face some very tough financial difficulties in the next few years.

The evidence is a September 2008 study by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, in which one-third of the 504 member institutions surveyed indicated that the credit crunch had hurt enrollment.  About 20%  of respondents said they had fewer returning students than expected, and roughly the same number said they had a smaller incoming freshman class than expected.

Clearly the credit crunch is hurting individual families, and economic logic would have it that these individual decisions will have an impact on the higher education industry, as demand falls for high-priced tuition at private colleges and universities. I’ll have more thoughts on that story later this week.

As demand falls, some colleges that were not as conservative with their investments and did not leverage their future in favor of immediate gratification may begin to feel the financial pinch.  Moody’s is watching college budgets and investments carefully, and according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, three colleges are on a “watch list” to have their bond ratings downgraded. The colleges in question are Simmons College, Franklin Pierce University, and Suffolk University.

Many other colleges will feel some pain.  But, as I said in an earlier post, most colleges have acted more like the pecunious ant than the spendthrift grasshopper.  The report from Moody’s bears this out, as seen from this quotation from the Chronicle article:

In its report, Moody’s said that the “overwhelming majority” of colleges have dealt with the freeze with “only minor budgetary or liquidity adjustments.” It attributed colleges’ general resilience to their conservative management strategies, their access to lines of credit and quasi-endowment funds, and their holding of fixed-rate debt.


So I’m not betting that many colleges will go belly up or that we’ll see a bunch of college mergers.  Maybe a few exceptional cases will make the headlines, but the vast majority will weather the storm.  It won’t necessarily be a leisurely cruise; but most boats won’t sink–even as the hurricane roars overhead.

Mark Montgomery
College Counselor

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