Higher ed's budget woes are becoming harder to ignore. The cost of running a college spiked 5.2% from FY21 to FY22, a 10.1% increase since FY19. At the same time, 28 states continued to fund higher education at lower levels than before the pandemic, and the average tuition discount rate at private colleges reached an all-time high of 56.2% in FY23. Capital renewal costs also broke records, coming in at $133 per gross square foot in FY22. Pandemic relief funding provided a lifeline for the sector across the last few years but has now run dry.
As costs continue to grow faster than revenues (as they did across the last decade), it’s no surprise that institutions with tight budgets or outright deficits are reopening the cost savings playbook. EAB has done a decade of research on cost savings and efficiency on both the academic and administrative side. The core is that across-the-board cuts don’t work. Consequently, it is crucial for institutions to engage in proactive and nuanced cost control strategies to ensure financial viability.
The future you should be planning for
Beyond the financial pressures of today, leaders must also consider the long-term enrollment challenges that will drive further revenue constraints. The much-discussed demographic cliff represents a 6.5% decline in the U.S. 15-19-year-old population from its peak in 2021 to its trough in 2032. The number of prospective students will continue to drop after that, permanently falling another 21% by 2100, despite a slight bump in the 2030s.
Coupled with growing market concentration and declining college-going rates, this continued demographic decline will push hundreds of institutions far below their current enrollment levels. In fact, as the graph below illustrates, EAB predicts that nearly 250 institutions could see their enrollment drop by over half by 2040, based on current long-term trends.
Estimated cumulative number of four-year institutions with 25% and 50% declines in first-time first-year enrollment from 2022
Based on trends in demographics, market concentration, and college-going rates
Source: EAB analysis of WICHE, IPEDS, and American Communities Survey data.
Now is the time to act
While projections are not destiny and shrinking enrollments not inevitable, these projections are a sobering glimpse into the future. To navigate the challenges presented by our current and projected realities, institutions must address rising costs.
For many, this likely entails a shift from the mindset of "doing more with less" to adopting a strategy of "doing less with less." This approach advocates for proactive rightsizing of the institution—making strategic choices and adjustments on your own terms. Such a strategy is geared towards ensuring long-term health and viability and focusing on sustainability even in the face of limited resources.
Potentially better conditions for some cost-control strategies
Many institutional leaders know the long-term savings playbook, but most haven’t fully implemented it. The good news is that recent disruptions and innovations have made many strategies more valuable and/or reduced change management challenges.
Administrative cost-saving strategies
|Centralization||Opportunistically collapsed or merged units when doing so posed low change management risk…||…without systematically reviewing chances to consolidate and centralize work across campus||Shifts to cloud-based and hybrid work dampen largest complaints (e.g., staff proximity, access) about redesigns|
|Workflow||Simplified processes (e.g., removed duplicative steps) to ease workloads…||…without eliminating the paper-based processes that slow action||Forced remote work during the pandemic catalyzed widespread digitalization|
|Vacancy review||Asked the right questions about whether to backfill a position…||…without mandating hold-open periods to analyze multiple vacancies together||As job-switching increases with each generation, higher number and more regular vacancies likely|
|Energy||Achieved visibility into the biggest energy draws…||…without replacing legacy systems with more energy-efficient technologies||Improvements in technology (e.g., solar, water) and costs make green energy ROI more achievable|
|Purchasing||Increased enforcement of on-contract spending and purchasing policies…||…without automating procurement processes that enhance compliance||Advances in AI, such as robotic process automation, can streamline repetitive buyer tasks like issuing purchase orders|
Academic cost-saving strategies
|Space utilization||Deployed a range of occupancy trackers to collect utilization data…||…without creating any incentives for departments to relinquish under-utilized offices and classrooms||Remote and hybrid work have changed and, in many cases, reduced the use of space, creating potentially large opportunities for rationalization|
|Academic program review||Gathered data on cost, enrollment, student success, and other metrics…||…without divesting from programs that require difficult resourcing decisions||Future efforts may be able to ride in the wake of current first-movers who are absorbing worst of PR pushback|
|Departmental reorganization||Aligned departmental evaluation with institutional priorities…||…without making wholesale changes to organizational designs||Expected wave of faculty retirements may enable leaders to redesign departments from the ground up with fewer change-management battles|
|Instructional capacity||Reduced underfilled sections and excessive numbers of small courses…||…without optimizing faculty course loads or reducing overall curricular complexity||Better data today than in the past, and news of program closures likely to make faculty more willing to tackle curricular complexity|
|Course sharing consortia||Partnered on some small, mostly invisible back-office services…||…without pursuing partnerships to streamline academic offerings||Increases in quality and willingness to take online courses mean physical distance, location matter less|
Wherever your institution is on cost containment efforts, EAB’s Essential Guide to Cost Containment Strategies for Higher Education recommends best practices across institutional maturity and units.
Interested in learning more? Join our Roundtable for Chief Business Officers in Washington, D.C. in spring 2024. You’ll have the opportunity to engage in highly interactive, executive-level conversations with peers about the most pressing challenges facing higher education today.
2024 Roundtable for Chief Business Officers
Join EAB experts and fellow higher ed CBOs this spring for conversations about the most pressing challenges facing higher education today.