MuniLand – Higher Education Section is Under Pressure

At SNW Asset Management we review all of our municipal credits at least annually when their comprehensive annual financial reports are released.  In addition to monitoring each security, we perform a sector analysis to identify secular trends and risks.  For instance, the higher education sector includes bonds from both public and private colleges and universities.  Issuers in this space range from Harvard University to the Arizona Board of Regent which issues debt on behalf of the university system of Arizona, to small private liberal arts colleges like St John’s College in Annapolis, MD which can issue debt through state conduit authorities.  In the higher education sector we are closely following three main drivers of credit risk: (1) the growth rate of net tuition and financial aid; (2) competitive pressures; and (3) the ability of the institution to offer degrees which are applicable to the current labor market.  Each of these sector trends and risks are under pressure and our outlook on the higher education sector has become negative in the face of accelerating growth in student loan debt and a slowly improving labor market.  First, as tuition costs increased both private and public universities have started to offer more financial assistance to attract students which in some cases has caused revenue to be flat or declining.  We typically find this in small liberal arts schools.  Another sector trend we follow closely is competitive pressures between schools, online programs and less expensive offerings.  In the Northeast especially, and in large metropolitan areas, the concentration of higher education offerings is much greater.  This creates a highly competitive market. Colleges fight for top quality students by awarding significant scholarships which builds pressure on our main credit risk; net tuition growth rates.  This trend hits private universities the hardest.  Finally, the ability of a higher education establishment to offer degree programs for the current labor market is important.  The current labor market demands highly skilled talents such as boilermakers or computer programmers.  In regions where oil and natural gas are large drivers of employment, and skilled labor is in high demand, a welding specialist can earn upward of $150,000.  It’s hard for a liberal arts school graduate to compete with that type of salary.  In all, our outlook for the sector is being downgraded but we are looking for specific credits within the space which will provide us with yields that reward us for the sector risks.