Bond Boom Comes to America’s Colleges and Universities

Juliet Chung and Melissa Korn:

Faced with a rapid deterioration in their finances in 2020, America’s colleges and universities issued a record amount of bonds this year.

It is a stressful time for higher education. The coronavirus pandemic worsened existing pressures on tuition and auxiliary revenue, with international students opting to study outside the U.S. and money from room and board drying up as schools keep classes online. At the same time, demand for financial aid and costs related to providing protective gear and Covid-19 testing have jumped.

Hoping to address possible shortfalls and take advantage of ultralow rates, universities have flooded the market with debt. With few places to get a return in the bond market, investors have scooped up the issues, which in some cases offer yields of 2% or 3% for debt that matures in 15 to 30 years.

The higher-education sector “becomes attractive because it’s under pressure,” said Daniel Solender, who oversees tax-free fixed-income investments at asset manager Lord Abbett & Co., referring to rising yields on higher-education bonds as schools’ ability to navigate the pandemic came into question. The firm added more than $300 million to its holdings of such bonds this year.

“There are a lot of high-quality institutions with great reputations, great balance sheets, that will find a way to make it through this environment,” he said.