Some schools already have hiring freezes and are cutting course and delaying campus construction in order to offset costs.
Colleges fear students will leave private campuses for cheaper public universities or not go to school at all.
Problems range from a $1 billion decline in the value of Duke University's endowment to debt and declining enrollment at smaller schools. Duke's president wants cost reductions to be identified and ordered a review of capital projects to see what could be delayed.
According to a Raleigh newspaper, a survey of 371 private institutions showed they expected enrollment to decline between 1 percent and 10 percent next semester. The survey by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities showed 11 percent of the institutions planned to lay off faculty or had done so.
Campuses that already have financial problems will face more challenges from the economy.
At St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, enrollment declined for the 2008 fall semester by 125 students, to 625.
The college has filed a lawsuit against the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which wanted to drop St. Andrews' accreditation because of concerns about financial stability.
St. Andrews is launching online courses and recruiting international students to try to boost enrollment while cutting its budget and laying off employees. The school has about $20 million in debt.
Louisburg College also has laid off employees and cut spending to reduce its budget by $1.6 million after getting a warning from the accreditation group over financial stability.
Louisburg has reduced its debt from $7 million to about $5.5 million, according to interim president Rodney Foth. But the college's enrollment has dropped from 724 students last year to 586, meaning fewer course sections and part-time faculty.