In spite of the vast majority of federal government operations being closed on Thursday due to snow (it’s been a rough end to winter in this part of the country), the U.S. Department of Education released financial responsibility scores for private nonprofit and for-profit colleges and universities based on 2012-2013 data. These scores are based on calculations designed to measure a college’s financial strength in three key areas: primary reserve ratio (liquidity), equity ratio (ability to borrow additional funds) and net income (profitability or excess revenue).
A college can score between -1 and 3, and colleges that score over 1.5 are considered financially responsible without any qualifications and can access federal funds. Colleges scoring between 1.0 and 1.4 are considered financially responsible and can access federal funds for up to three years, but are subject to additional Department of Education oversight of its financial aid programs. If a college does not improve its score within three years, it will not be considered financially responsible. Colleges scoring 0.9 or below are not considered financially responsible and must submit a letter of credit and be subject to additional oversight to get access to funds. A college can submit a letter of credit equal to 50% of all federal student aid funds received in the prior year and be deemed financially responsible, or it can submit a letter equal to 10% of all funds received and gain access to funds but still not be fully considered financially responsible.
As Goldie Blumenstyk (who knows more about the topic than any other journalist) and Joshua Hatch of The Chronicle of Higher Education discover in their snap analysis of the data, 158 private degree-granting colleges (108 nonprofit and 50 for-profit) failed to pass the test in 2012-13, down ten colleges from last year. Looking at all colleges eligible to receive federal financial aid, 192 failed outright in 2012-13 by scoring 0.9 or lower and an additional 128 faced additional oversight by scoring between 1.0 and 1.4.
But, as Blumenstyk and Hatch note in their piece, private colleges have repeatedly questioned how financial responsibility scores are determined and whether they are accurate measures of a college’s financial health. I’m working on an article examining whether and how colleges and other stakeholders respond to financial responsibility scores and therefore have a bunch of data at the ready to look at this topic.
Thanks to the help of my sharp research assistant Michelle Magno, I have a dataset of 270 private nonprofit colleges with financial responsibility scores and their Moody’s credit ratings in the 2010-11 academic year. (Colleges only have Moody’s ratings if they seek additional capital, which explains the smaller sample size and why few colleges with low financial responsibility scores are included.) The below scatterplot shows the relationship between Moody’s ratings and financial responsibility scores, with credit ratings observed between Caa and Aaa and financial responsibility scores observed between 1.3 and 3.0.
The correlation between the two measures of fiscal health was just 0.038, which is not significantly different from zero. Of the 57 colleges with the maximum financial responsibility score of 3.0, only three colleges (Northwestern, Stanford, and Swarthmore) had the highest possible credit rating of Aaa. Twenty-five colleges with financial responsibility scores of 3.0 had credit ratings of Baa, seven to nine grades lower than Aaa. On the other hand, six of the 15 colleges with Aaa credit ratings (including Harvard and Yale) had financial responsibility scores of 2.2, well below the maximum possible score.
This suggests that the federal government and private credit agencies measure colleges’ financial health in different ways—at least among colleges with the ability to access credit. Financial responsibility scores can certainly have the potential to affect how colleges structure their finances, but it is unclear whether they accurately reflect a college’s ability to operate going forward.