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More Colleges Face Bankruptcy Even as Top Schools Experience Record Wealth

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  • Since 2019, undergraduate enrollment nationwide has fallen 8%, putting some colleges in severe financial distress.
  • Only the country's top universities are faring better than ever.

Across the country, colleges are in crisis.

Fewer students went back to school again this year, dragging undergraduate enrollment down another 3.5% from last year, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Combined with last autumn's declines, the number of undergraduate students in college is now down 7.8% compared to two years ago — the largest two-year enrollment drop in the last 50 years, the report found.

There is, however, a wide disparity among schools, with less selective institutions — and those serving low- and middle-income students — seeing the biggest drop in enrollments.

Community college enrollment experienced the steepest declines, now down 15% since 2019, while highly selective colleges notched enrollment gains — up 3.1% — to return to pre-pandemic levels.

The consequences of fewer students and less tuition revenue could be severe, according to Sam Pollack, a partner and senior member of NEPC's Endowments and Foundations practice.

In fact, 62% of higher education leaders said that is the biggest challenge they now face, according to a recent NEPC survey.

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Already, a number of small schools have had to shut down entirely.

Recently, Bloomfield College in New Jersey, which was founded in 1868, said it may be forced to close after the current academic year.

"Bloomfield College has been struggling with a decade-long decline in enrollment," Bloomfield's President Marcheta Evans said in a letter to the community. "The resulting financial challenges have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

"And, Bloomfield is not alone," she added. Judson College in Alabama, Becker College in Massachusetts and Concordia College New York also plan to close, among others.

Meanwhile, the country's most elite institutions are faring better than ever and have the financial cushion to prove it.

This year, a small group of universities, including many in the Ivy League, experienced a record-breaking increase in applications and net revenue gains.

These schools also reported record-breaking gains for their endowments largely due to investments in private equity or venture capital, according to Pollack. Some endowments grew more than 50%.  

As a result, universities such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton are able to expand their financial aid offerings, lowering the cost and increasing the appeal to even more students nationwide.

"They are often made to be the villains, but the vast majority of these institutions are working very hard to deploy those funds to the benefit of students," Pollack said.

In fact, the top schools for financial aid are all private and their very generous aid packages can make them surprisingly affordable, despite the eye-popping sticker prices.

"If the highly selective schools are able to subsidize that cost, it makes it even more compelling and that has broad implications for the higher education landscape," Pollack said.

At Yale, for example, tuition and fees plus books, room and board averaged $77,750 this year, according to data from The Princeton Review, but the average need-based scholarship award — or free money — was just over $59,000 bringing the total out-of-pocket cost down to roughly $22,000.

"That hefty sticker cost might be intimidating, but find out the average cost that students and parents are actually paying," said Robert Franek, The Princeton Review's editor-in-chief.

"It could end up being less expensive than your local public college."

But without the same resources, less competitive schools are in danger of losing even more students, widening the divide, Pollack said.

Like what is happening to the nation as a whole, "there is increasing bifurcation between the haves and have nots and that appears to be true in higher education."

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