Understanding Financial Responsibility Scores for Private Colleges

This post originally appeared on the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center Chalkboard blog.

The stories of financially struggling private colleges, both nonprofit and for-profit, have been told in many news articles. Small private nonprofit colleges are increasing tuition discount rates in an effort to attract a shrinking pool of traditional-age students in many parts of the country, while credit rating agency Moody’s expects the number of private nonprofit college closings to triple to about 15 per year by next year. Meanwhile, the for-profit sector has seen large enrollment decreases in the last few years amid the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and the University of Phoenix’s 50 percent drop in enrollment since 2010.

In an effort to identify financially struggling colleges and protect federal investments in student financial aid, Congress requires the U.S. Department of Education to calculate financial responsibility composite scores that are designed to measure a college’s overall financial strength based on metrics of liquidity, ability to borrow additional funds if needed, and net income. Private nonprofit and for-profit colleges are required to submit financial data each year, while public colleges are excluded under the assumption that state funding makes them unlikely to become insolvent.

Though not commonly known, these financial responsibility scores have important consequences for private colleges.  Scores can range between -1.0 and 3.0, with colleges scoring at or above 1.5 being considered financially responsible and are allowed to access federal funds. Colleges scoring between 1.0 and 1.4 can access financial aid dollars, but are subject to additional Department of Education oversight of their financial aid programs. Finally, colleges scoring 0.9 or below are not considered financially responsible and must submit a letter of credit of at least 10 percent of federal student aid from the previous year and be subject to additional oversight to get access to funds. The Department of Education can also determine that a college does not meet “initial eligibility requirements due to a failing composite score” and assign it a failing grade without releasing a score to the public. In this case, a college will be immediately subject to heightened cash monitoring rules that delay the federal government’s disbursement of financial aid dollars to colleges. However, private nonprofit colleges dispute the validity of the formula, claiming it is inaccurate and does not meet current accounting standards.

I first examined the distribution of financial responsibility scores among the 3,435 institutions (1,683 private nonprofit and 1,752 for-profit) with scores in the 2013-14 academic year, using data released to the public earlier this month. As illustrated in the figure below, only a small percentage of colleges that were assigned a score did not pass the test. In 2013-14, 203 colleges (73 nonprofit and 130 for-profit) received a failing score and an additional 136 (51 nonprofit and 85 for-profit) were in the oversight zone. Most of the colleges with failing scores are obscure institutions, such as the Champion Institute of Cosmetology in California and The Chicago School for Piano Technology. However, a few of these institutions, such as for-profit colleges Charleston School of Law, ITT Technical Institute, and Vatterott Colleges as well as nonprofit colleges Erskine College in South Carolina, Everglades University in Florida (a former for-profit) and Finlandia University in Michigan are at least somewhat better-known.


I then examined trends in financial responsibility scores since when scores were first released to the public in the 2006-07 academic year. The first finding to note in the below table is that the number of nonprofit colleges that did not pass the financial responsibility test nearly doubled between 2007-08 and 2008-09, including more than one in six institutions. Much of this increase appears to be due to the collapse in endowment values, as even a decline in a rather small endowment would affect a college’s score through reducing net income. During the same period, there was only a slight increase in the number of for-profit colleges facing additional oversight.


The second interesting trend is that in spite of concerns about the viability of small colleges with high tuition prices since the Great Recession, the number of colleges that either received a failing score or faced additional oversight has slowly declined since 2010-11. Only 12 percent of for-profits and seven percent of nonprofits failed in 2013-14, reflecting a general stabilizing trend for struggling private institutions.  Although there are certainly valid concerns about how these scores are calculated, most colleges with failing scores and some others facing additional oversight are likely on shaky financial footing. Many of these colleges with failing scores—particularly for several years in a row—will be forced to consider merging with another institution or closing their doors entirely in the near future. Other colleges closer to the passing threshold may be facing tight budgets for years to come, but their short-term viability is generally secure.

It is unlikely that a substantial number of students and families know that financial responsibility scores even exist, let alone use them in their college choice decisions. However, these scores do provide some potential insights into the financial stability of a college and could potentially be included in the new College Scorecard tool. Students who are considering attending a college that repeatedly receives a failing score should ask tough questions of college officials about whether they will be financially solvent several years from now. Policymakers should use these scores as a way to identify financially struggling institutions and provide support for ones with solid academic outcomes, while also asking tough questions about the viability of cash-strapped colleges that academically underperform similar colleges.

The 2016 Net Price Madness Bracket

Every year, I take the 68 teams in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament and fill out a bracket based on colleges with the lowest net price of attendance (defined as the total cost of attendance less all grant aid received). My 2015, 2014 and 2013 brackets are preserved for posterity—and aren’t terribly successful on the hardwood. My 2015 winner (Wichita State) won two games in the tournament, while prior winners Louisiana-Lafayette and North Carolina A&T emerged victorious for having the lowest net price but failed to win a single game.

I created two brackets this year using 2013-14 data (the most recent available through the U.S. Department of Education): one for the net price of attendance for all students and one focusing on students with family incomes below $30,000 per year. The final four teams in each bracket are the following:

All student receiving aid

East: Wichita State ($9,843)

West: Cal State-Bakersfield ($5,690)

South: West Virginia ($9,380)

Midwest: Fresno State ($5,599)


Low-income students only

East: Vanderbilt ($6,905)

West: Yale ($3,918)

South: North Carolina ($4,431)

Midwest: Fresno State ($3,835)


A big congratulations to Fresno State and the state of California for winning this year’s edition of Net Price Madness across both categories.

What the Leading Republican Presidential Candidates Are Saying About College Affordability

With cumulative student loan debt exceeding $1.2 trillion and the average net price of college attendance continuing to rise, college affordability has become an important issue in the 2016 presidential election. Most of the attention on this topic has been in the Democratic primary, in which Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both have ambitious plans to make public colleges either tuition-free (Sanders) or debt-free (Clinton) that have played a prominent role in their campaigns.

College affordability has played a much smaller role in the Republican primary to this point, with topics such as foreign policy and immigration getting far more attention from the candidates. Yet the rising price of college is likely to be an important issue in the general election, particularly among younger adults who tend to lean toward supporting Democratic candidates. Here, I examine the leading Republican candidates’ positions on how to make higher education more affordable for students and their families.

Donald Trump

The billionaire businessman and political novice has gained attention recently for his foray into for-profit higher education through the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, which was previously known as Trump University before New York’s attorney general sued to stop Trump from using the term “university.” Trump is also facing lawsuits from former students who claimed that they got no value from their investment of up to $35,000 in real estate seminars.

In multiple interviews, Trump has stated his intention to either close or substantially downsize the U.S. Department of Education, although much of his rationale appears to be due to opposition to the Common Core standards at the K-12 level. In his only statement regarding higher education affordability, Trump has criticized the Department of Education for making a profit on the federal student loan program. Trump shares this view with many Democratic legislators, even though government agencies have different opinions about the profitability of student loans.

Sen. Marco Rubio

The first-term Florida senator has significant experience with higher education, having been an adjunct professor of political science at Florida International University between 2008 and 2015. In the Senate, Rubio has co-sponsored bipartisan legislation that would make income-based repayment the default option for federal student loans and would require colleges to report additional data on student outcomes. He has also co-sponsored a bipartisan bill that would open the federal financial aid program to alternative education providers that can meet certain outcome standards and gain accreditation, although he has also faced criticism for his defense of for-profit colleges whose access to federal funds has been threatened.

Rubio has also supported ideas that are likely to appeal to Republican primary voters but may not be as popular with independent-minded voters in a general election. Like Trump, Rubio has also called for the elimination of the Department of Education. Rubio has noted that some programs currently administered by the federal government should continue (such as the federal student loan program), but they could be absorbed by the Department of the Treasury or other agencies. He has sponsored legislation in the Senate to allow students to use private income share agreements, which function similarly to private loans with income-based repayment, to finance their education. This idea has been criticized as a form of indentured servitude, even though federal loans function in similar ways.

Sen. Ted Cruz

The first-term Texas senator has said relatively little about college affordability, other than noting that he just recently paid off his $100,000 in student loan debt. Like the other GOP candidates, he has called for the vast majority of the Department of Education to be eliminated. Cruz would appoint an Education Secretary whose sole goal would be to determine which programs should remain and give most funding to the states via block grants. In 2012, Cruz indicated that he would keep federal student aid funds in the federal budget, but transfer funding and authority to the states.

As Democrats will certainly keep at least 40 seats in the U.S. Senate (the minimum needed to sustain a filibuster to block legislation) and may gain a majority in this fall’s election, it doesn’t appear that the Department of Education will go away anytime soon. But if any of these three Republican candidates are elected, their actions on affordability—and the implications for both students and taxpayers—are likely to be quite different than what a Clinton or Sanders administration will be proposing.