Personal Finance

Falling enrollment, lost tuition puts colleges in extreme financial distress

Key Points
  • Revenue shortfalls from tuition and student housing are the greatest challenges colleges now face, according to a new survey of higher education leaders.
  • Already, universities have furloughed thousands of employees and announced revenue losses in the hundreds of millions.
VIDEO7:0907:09
What it's like to return to college during a pandemic

Sharp enrollment declines due to the pandemic have taken a severe financial toll on many colleges and universities, and the impact may last for years to come.

To that point, 67% of higher education leaders said decreased revenue from tuition and student housing are the biggest challenges they now face, according to a recent poll from consulting firm NEPC's endowments and foundations practice.

Overall, undergraduate enrollment fell 4% this year, according to separate data from National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, with incoming freshmen accounting for the biggest drop — sinking 16% from last fall.

The coronavirus pandemic created the most severe liquidity crisis higher education has faced since the global financial crisis.
Sam Pollack
partner at NEPC

For many colleges and universities, the consequences could be severe, according to Sam Pollack, a partner in NEPC's Endowments and Foundations practice.

 "The coronavirus pandemic created the most severe liquidity crisis higher education has faced since the global financial crisis," he said. 

As many schools moved to a hybrid approach to education, with a combination of in-person and online classes, the number of students living on campuses is also down substantially.

Nearly three-quarters of those polled by NEPC said occupancy in school-owned housing — another a critical source of revenue — declined this year, and about one-quarter said it decreased more than 50%.

More from Personal Finance:
Is a 529 plan still your best savings bet?
College students are worried about their financial future
Pandemic sends young adults back to mom and dad

Even before the global pandemic caused craters in the economy, some institutions were facing financial hardship after years of deep cuts in state funding for higher education. 

Already, universities have furloughed thousands of employees and announced revenue losses in the hundreds of millions. Some have even cut academic programs that were once central to a liberal arts education in order to stay afloat. 

NEPC polled about 50 higher education executives from colleges and universities across the country. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center collects data from more than 3,600 post-secondary institutions.

Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.