Assessing a College’s Financial Health

COVID-19's impact on universities
Researching a college's financial health should be part of a family's college search. Here's what to look for and resources to use.

Assessing a College’s Financial Health

Published April 10, 2020 | Last Updated January 3rd, 2024 at 06:58 am

Researching a college's financial health should be part of a family's college search. Here's what to look for and resources to use.
COVID-19's impact on universities

Part of the process of finding the right college or university to attend includes researching something most people take for granted: a college’s financial health.

Just because a school has existed for a long time, or is an integral part of a city or town, doesn’t guarantee it will be there forever.

Even before the pandemic hit, the business of higher education was financially challenged.

As noted by HechingerReport.org, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, “More than half of university trustees in a survey conducted by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges said they were concerned about the financial futures of their institutions.”

Prospective students should research their college choices carefully because there are obvious problems that affect students when a school shuts its doors.

The less obvious problems might be a blot on a degree that emanated from such a school,  or a lack of an alumni network that can be so important to a student.

So how can you and your child know if a school is financially sound? 

Checking a College’s Financial Health

Search for clues…

No one can predict the financial viability of a school by judging just one aspect of that school, but there are a number of telling signs that, in combination, might send up some red flags.

First and foremost: Check the school’s website and look for any published financial information, including the size of the school’s endowments (more on this below) and any relevant state funding increases or decreases. 

Enrollment Trends

On the website, you can also learn about their enrollment over recent years.

Look for trends downward: For a small school especially, this may mean they’re not meeting their goals.

Enrollment information for many schools is compiled annually in something called the Common Data Set, and published in a variety of ways.

You can find it most easily from home by doing a search from a school’s website for: Common Data Set.  

International Students

Another piece of important data within the Common Data Set is the percent of students who are nonresident aliens or international. In the past, colleges (both public and private) have relied on international students to pay full price and fill budget shortfalls. The fewer international students a college attracts, the less money the institution has.

Talk with Current Students

Your child can also reach out to talk with students who’ve recently graduated from their own high school—and who are currently enrolled in colleges or universities they’re interested in.

If they’re unable to find people on their own, their high school can usually help facilitate this. 

Ideally, your child would be able to visit the campus and see the physical state of the school.  If that’s not an option, ask students who currently attend:

  • Are buildings in good working order?
  • Do classrooms and dorms look worn and torn?
  • Is the school open to new ways of learning?

A few other ways for your child to find students to ask questions of: LinkedIn and Twitter, or through Facebook groups for those schools. 

Online Learning

Go to the Department of Education’s College Navigator and look under the enrollment section.

There, you’ll be able to see the percentage of students who are enrolled in distance (online) learning.

While not all students want to take online classes, some students do appreciate the flexibility that they offer.

Tuition Discount Rate

Be aware that, much like a store offering deep discounts to attract more customers, a school offering to cut prices by a significant percentage may be trying to attract students in large numbers to enroll.

This can be a red flag that they’re having financial difficulty. Schools need students who can pay full price in the mix. 

Local Economy

What about the community that surrounds the school? Is the economy healthy? Can you glean any information about the school from their local TV news, radio, or online and print publications?

Communications From the College

If a school is having financial difficulty, rest assured, said author-educator Michael Horn during our Facebook Live interview, that they “have a legal obligation to their students to be upfront about it.” 

Social Media

Social media can be an early warning indicator even before colleges make official announcements.

Search tweets by professors and administrators to find clues that things may be changing at the college.

Comments related to salary and hiring freezes and course cutting may be clues of a school trying to cut expenses.

Assessing the financial health of a college

Turn to the Experts

In addition to the steps above, there are a number of sites that have compiled helpful research you can easily access that will help  you get a better idea of a school’s financial health. 

  • Forbes grades of private not-for-profit colleges in the U.S. (enrollment greater than 500).  

Click here to see National Center for Education Statistics database. Forbes analyzed all private not-for-profit colleges in the U.S. with enrollments greater than 500, grading them on balance sheet strength and operational soundness, plus certain other indicators of a college’s financial condition, including admission yield, percentage of freshmen receiving institutional grants and instruction expenses per student.

(For Forbe’s methodology, please click here

  • Bain & Company created a table classifying colleges as tuition dependent or not. The data is about 10 years old, but it’s a good start to use as directional information in your continued research.
  • The government publishes Financial Responsibility Composite Scores for colleges and universities. “The composite score reflects the overall relative financial health of institutions along a scale from negative 1.0 to positive 3.0. A score greater than or equal to 1.5 indicates the institution is considered financially responsible.

Schools with scores of less than 1.5 but greater than or equal to 1.0 are considered financially responsible, but require additional oversight. These schools are subject to cash monitoring and other participation requirements.

A school with a score less than 1.0 is considered not financially responsible.”

  • The State Higher Education Finance (SHEF) report examines the trends, context, and consequences of state higher education funding decisions. This report analyzes state-level and national funding and enrollment trends over time.
  • College Viability is an independent site that investigates and publishes information relating to the financial health of  colleges and universities.
  • NACUBO publishes data on endowment sizes of institutions, an important indicator of whether a college can financially withstand a crisis, especially one that will impact government funding (for public universities) and family finances available for college.

The Bottom Line

Used together, the information on school websites, combined with information on the sites suggested above and aided by conversations with current and former students and school administrators, can help provide a more accurate and well-balanced picture of a school’s financial health. 

Encourage your child to take advantage of the opportunity to do the research, perhaps with your help, to sort it all out.

It’s a worthwhile investment of time that can have a far-reaching payoff. 

Other Articles You Might Like:

10 Reasons to Consider Smaller Schools with High Acceptance Rates

How to Pick a College That Loves You Back

Tips and Tricks to Make the Most of Your College Tours

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