How to Investigate a College’s Spending Trends

By definition, university finance and operations data is scattered among myriad sources, including everything from financial audits to enrollment reports and financial aid disbursements. There are also important and reliable sources of aggregate national data that can help put an institution’s individual performance into context.

Combine these numbers and they will often lead you to universities and colleges that, despite enrollment declines, have kept hiring, building and spending.

One potential jumping off point is the Financial Fitness Tracker produced by The Hechinger Report, an interactive tool that aggregates much of the available data on these topics, by institution, and flags any of several widely used measures of financial stress.

Enrollment and Demand 

Enrollment is the most basic measure of, and a good starting point for assessing, a university or college’s financial health. A swing in enrollment of only a few dozen incoming freshmen can have a years-long financial impact on a small college.

Colleges and universities are required to report fall enrollment to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics each October. However, the department takes more than a year to compile and post it publicly.

To find fall enrollment in near real time, go directly to a university or college website and search (in the search function) for “Common Data Set,” a form created by the College Board, Peterson’s, and U.S. News & World Report that most institutions voluntarily fill out and disclose.

The Common Data Set provides a wealth of information, beginning with enrollment. Look for trends; a sustained downturn could mean trouble for an institution. For context, compare the direction of a university’s or college’s enrollment with national enrollment trends compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The Common Data Set also includes:

• Persistence, typically measured as the percentage of first-year students who return for a second year. About a quarter of students nationally drop out; institutions with very low persistence (meaning even higher first- to second-year dropout rates than the national average) face significant financial repercussions.

• Selectivity, meaning the percentage of applicants accepted. Declining selectivity is an early warning sign for universities and colleges, suggesting that they’re running into trouble landing students and their badly needed dollars.

• Financial aid. If institutional grants are increasingly going to students from families who do not meet the federal definition of having financial need — information also provided in the Common Data Set — that’s another sign a university or college may be having trouble filling seats.

If the institution you’re researching does not provide the Common Data Set and won’t share these figures on request, you can find them in the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS — the boon and bane of education journalists everywhere. IPEDS lets you look up and compare specific universities and colleges, but the process can be perplexing and the data is usually a year or more behind real time; you can also find it by simply going to the department’s consumer-facing College Navigator.

Note that information from all of these sources is provided directly by the universities and colleges themselves. That’s important to know if they dispute it (which they more than occasionally do), and because a few have been caught gaming the numbers. The government doesn’t audit or fact-check the data institutions send.

Updated May 2021