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A crisis is looming for U.S. colleges ? and not just because of the pandemic

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They’d spent the past decade grappling with declining enrollments and weakening support from state governments.Now, with the added pressures of the coronavirus pandemic, the fabric of American higher education has become even more strained: The prospect of lower revenues has already forced some schools to slash budgets and could lead to waves of closings, experts and researchers say.To examine how institutions were positioned to respond to such a crisis, The Hechinger Report created a Financial Fitness Tracker that put the nation’s public institutions and four-year nonprofit colleges and universities through a financial stress test, examining key metrics including enrollment, tuition revenue, public funding and endowment health.Schools faring the worst in these areas — meaning that they are projected to dip under the 20th percentile in a particular category — are marked with warning signs in the tracker. Even if colleges manage to stay open, they may have to make deep cuts to do so, which could ultimately hurt students as well.“Think of the revenue shocks these universities are suffering,” said Gregory Price, an economics and finance professor at the University of New Orleans, noting that if students aren’t on campuses for the coming academic year or choose not to attend at all, schools could miss out on even more. (For-profit schools are not included in their methodology.)The Hechinger Report’s Financial Fitness Tracker takes the researchers' “stress test” and applies it to individual schools to make the scores transparent and public.For private colleges, the Hechinger Report tool tracked enrollment, retention, average tuition revenue per student and endowment-to-spending ratios. All kinds of institutions — from large public universities to small private schools — face challenges.“We’re just swimming deep in the ocean right now,” said Chris Pines, a former full-time philosophy and humanities professor at the University of Rio Grande in southeastern Ohio, who recently lost his position due to the school's financial problems. (The plan still needs to be ratified by the union.)Related: Budget cuts are taking the heaviest toll on colleges that serve the neediest studentsThe budget cut was based on “significant” revenue losses from the spring campus closure, enrollment projections and state funding trends, Christine Boyd, director of media relations, said in an email.“Throughout the budget process, great care has been taken to preserve academic quality and ensure that support services — from financial aid to academic support — remain strong to help our students on their degree journey,” Boyd added.Lt. Gov. Now, he added, coronavirus-related revenue losses threaten to make it even harder for these schools to survive.“It’s going to be very challenging for a place like Wilberforce to sustain itself,” Price said.Related: Already stretched universities now face tens of billions in endowment lossesWilberforce is currently on probation with its accreditor because of financial problems; the issues stretch back for years. “We join the community of institutions in higher education who are all vulnerable but determined to reimagine higher education in a post-COVID-19 environment.”Still, with too many colleges competing for a shrinking pool of students and the consequences of the coronavirus bearing down, higher education may face tumultuous years ahead, Price warned.“A lot of underendowed, financially fragile institutions are going to have to shut their doors, unfortunately,” he said.Sign up for The Hechinger Report’s higher education newsletter.Sarah Butrymowicz is senior editor for investigations at The Hechinger Report.

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