Every year, the U.S. Department of Education is required to issue a financial responsibility score for private nonprofit and for-profit colleges, which serves as a crude measure of an institution’s financial health. Colleges are scored on a scale from -1.0 to 3.0, with colleges scoring 0.9 or below failing the test (and having to put up a letter of credit) and colleges scoring between 1.0 and 1.4 being placed in a zone of additional oversight.
Ever since I first learned of the existence of this metric five or six years ago, I have been bizarrely fascinated by its mechanics and how colleges respond to the score as an accountability pressure. I have previously written about how these scores are only loosely correlated with college closures in the past and also wrote an article about how colleges do not appear to change their fiscal priorities as a result of receiving a low score.
ED typically releases financial responsibility scores with no fanfare, and it looks like they updated their website with new scores in late March without anyone noticing (at least based on a Google search of the term “financial responsibility score”). I was adding a link to the financial responsibility score to a paper I am writing and noticed that the newest data—for the fiscal year ending between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017—was out. So here is a brief summary of the data.
Of the 3,590 colleges (at the OPEID level) that were subject to the financial responsibility test in 2016-17, 269 failed, 162 were in the oversight zone, and 3,159 passed. Failure rates were higher in the for-profit sector than in the nonprofit sector, as the table below indicates.
Financial responsibility scores by institutional type, 2016-17.
|Fail (-1.0 to 0.9)||82||187||269|
|Zone (1.0 to 1.4)||58||104||162|
|Pass (1.5 to 3.0)||1,559||1,600||3,159|
Among the 91 institutions with the absolute lowest score of -1.0, 85 were for-profit. And many of them were a part of larger chains. Education Management Corporation (17), Education Affiliates, Inc. (19), and Nemo Investor Aggregator (11) were responsible for more than half of the -1 scores. Most of the Education Affiliates (Fortis) and Nemo (Cortiva) campuses still appear to be open, but Education Management Corporation (Argosy, Art Institutes) recently suffered a spectacular collapse.
I am increasingly skeptical of financial responsibility scores as a useful measure of financial health because they are so backwards-looking. The data are already three years old, which is an eternity for a college on the brink of collapse (but perhaps not awful for a cash-strapped nonprofit college with a strong will to live on). I joined Kenny Megan from the Bipartisan Policy Center to write an op-ed for Roll Call on a better way to move forward with collecting more updated financial health measures, and I would love your thoughts on new ways to proceed!