Defining and Disclosing Financial Health

George Cornelius blogged this morning over at Finding My College about the desirability and need for private colleges to disclose their financial health.

No matter how you look at it, we, the U.S. taxpayers, pay dearly to support our higher ed system. Yet, when it comes to the so-called private institutions (the quasi-public colleges), there isn’t much shared with us or with prospective students about the spending and financial health (or lack thereof) of the institutions.

While I can quibble with the notion of quasi-public, it is a familiar argument. Bob Morse at US News & World Report tried making a similar argument years ago that private institutions should be subject to FOIA based on the large amounts of public money they receive. However, the money technically goes to the students, though it does seem to be a bit of a shell game. The money (student financial aid) can only be used at a qualifying provider and that provider makes the determination of eligibility and award. And controls disbursement.

The U.S. Department of Education, and any state that subsidizes quasi-public colleges, should compel the recipients of this largess to disclose conspicuously on their websites their financial statements for the past five years as well as data and information about student learning and outcomes. In other words, prospective students and their families should be given information with which to distinguish the performing institutions from the underperforming ones, and the ones with a future from the ones that are likely to find themselves in the junkyard of failed institutions before the current restructuring of higher ed has run its course.

The Department, and Congress, already require oodles of disclosures. The conspicuousness of these disclosures tends to leave much to be desired. This is also true for their usability. However, when I read George’s post this morning I was intrigued by the thought of what this might look like. In Virginia, when it comes to student-oriented data, the public and nonprofit institutions have no place to hide at the undergraduate level. We publish an awful lot of data, very detailed, with student outcomes out to 10 years. However, it does not touch the student learning issue, nor the financial stability issue.

I’ve mentioned before that there are two criteria that put a private institution on my at-risk list. A retention rate for the first to second year of less than 60% and fewer than 1500 students at an undergraduate-only, or 2000 at a predominantly undergraduate institution. A significant endowment can compensate these risks, but most institutions with these issues  have little to no endowment.

What can’t compensate is an inability to pay bills if the big checks are late. Such as those from the federal government. This is what happened to Virginia Intermont, despite the president personally loaning nearly a half-million dollars to the college. We could require some kind of disclosure as to the percentage of an institution’s total revenues represented by state and federal sources, including student financial aid.This is similar in nature to the 90/10 rule the Department has established for the for-profit institutions.

Even with five years of such numbers, that is only a minimal warning. It seems to me that a “cash-on-hand” warning trend added to this might be appropriate. Every 90 days the institution reports on its website how many days it can operate with current expenditure commitments and cash available. While this may not be directly meaningful to most families and students, it would certainly tell agencies and accreditors something important about the viability and sustainability of an institution.

I would also add a measure explains how much of tuition revenue is used to fund institutional aid, and on average, what students who have to borrow to pay for their attendance and do not receive gift aid, contribute in debt towards gift aid for other students.

Why?

This excellent article from Forbes describes many of the associated problems.

If the whole idea of jacking up a price and then selectively discounting seems a bit nefarious, Crockett takes issue: “Students on campuses pay all kinds of different price points, just like people sleeping in a hotel or flying on airplanes pay all kinds of different prices.”

Does that make it right? Or ethical for a nonprofit?

Given the distorted model in place, perhaps this kind of distorted solution has merit. So long as obtaining student loans is easy and universities continue to chase rankings by leveraging aid and beefing up campus amenities, published prices will continue to rise along with tuition discounts. Thousands of schools will continue to struggle, and enrollment consultants like Noel-Levitz will be more than happy to lend a helping hand.

Yep. So perhaps the president’s proposed rating system (#PIRS) should focus only financial stability.

By the way, speaking of #PIRS, since no one else has picked up on this, Valerie Strauss published this tidbit on her blog entry regarding 50 Virginia presidents signing on to a letter opposing PIRS:

Education Department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt issued this comment about the letter:

I noticed you wrote about the letter from the Virginia college presidents. Here is a statement from me (Dorie Nolt, no Turner necessary) on it:

“We have received the letter and look forward to responding. As a nation, we have to make college more accessible and affordable and assure that students graduate with an education of real value, which is the goal of the College Rating System. In an effort to build this system thoughtfully and wisely, we are listening actively to recommendations and concerns, which includes national listening tour of 80-plus meetings with 4,000 participants. We hear over and over — from students and families, college presidents and high school counselors, low-income students, business people and researchers – that, done right, a ratings system will push innovations and systems changes that will benefit students and we look forward to delivering a proposal that will help more Americans attain a college education.”

She also said there was more information about the development of the rating system on the Education Department website here.

“College Rating System” as opposed to “Postsecondary Institution Ratings System” – this seems like two changes to me: one rating system and only colleges and universities – not the thousands of other postsecondary institutions.

 

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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