U.S. colleges punished by financial crisis

Thu Oct 30, 2008 9:20am EDT
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By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Higher education has been a growth industry in the United States, evidenced by swelling enrollments, expanding campuses and growing endowments. But the global economic crisis has caught colleges and universities in a vice.

With their endowments shrinking along with stock markets, some schools may raise tuition more than usual, even as students complain it is already too expensive and struggle to get loans.

"This will definitely test many schools," said Ronald Watts, the finance chief of Oberlin College, an elite private school in Ohio whose endowment of nearly $750 million has shrunk by about 15 percent in the past four months.

To be sure, schools have proven resilient in past recessions, helped by rising student enrollment as people seek a leg-up in a bleak job market.

"It's not going to be as drastic as what corporations are doing," Watts said. "You don't just eliminate people and lay off faculty and expect not to destroy your academic program."

Nevertheless, a few schools have already announced fresh tuition hikes, and school officials said they were keeping a close eye on their finances. And, with schools under financial pressure, local economies all over the country are likely to suffer.

Tuition increases have outpaced inflation for years. Tuition and fees at public universities have risen 175 percent since 1992, while the consumer price index rose 48 percent.

At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the school's $1.8 billion endowment has shrunk by 18 percent since the start of the year, Sandy Wilcox of the University of Wisconsin Foundation said. Dipping into the endowment to make a promised contribution to the school's budget only shrinks it further.   Continued...

<p>A view of the Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, is seen in this handout photo taken in 2007. REUTERS/Gregory Cherin/Bennington College/Handout</p>