Moody’s release on Monday functions as something of a bookend to what has been a historic and tumultuous year for higher education. Last Thursday marked the one-year anniversary since the ratings agency published its first sectorwide assessment of the pandemic: “Outlook shifts to negative as coronavirus outbreak increases downside risks.”
The expected return of students to campuses this fall and a generous federal stimulus package led Moody’s Investors Service to revise from negative to stable its sectorwide outlook for America’s colleges on Monday. Still, analysts for the credit-ratings agency stressed the uncertainty ahead for higher education as institutions reckon with all the ways the coronavirus pandemic has changed the business of academe.
With a resurgent student presence on campuses across the country, Moody’s expects institutions to begin refilling their coffers with tuition and auxiliary-revenue dollars — earnings that took a hit after students elected to delay college or learn remotely off campus. At private colleges, tuition and auxiliary revenue account for a median of nearly 75 percent of operating revenue. In contrast, public colleges relied on these student-generated funds for a median of nearly 50 percent of operating revenue.
The latest round of federal stimulus includes separate appropriations to colleges and students, with support slated to last through 2023. Additional direct support to states would reduce the risk of additional funding cuts in public higher ed, the agency predicted.
But uncertainty abounds. Data collected by the federal government and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center suggest that access-oriented institutions, such as community colleges, could face greater enrollment disruptions headed into the fall of 2021. Similarly, Moody’s forecasts a difficult road ahead as some colleges try to recalibrate their tuition-discount rates. Many colleges significantly increased those institutional awards during the pandemic in an effort to stabilize cratering enrollments.