What College Presidents Think of Future of Higher Education

March 18, 2018

Inside Higher Education just released its annual “Survey of College and University Presidents.” The results, which cover a wide variety of topics, are revealing if not surprising. There are too many individual findings to discuss in a single article; therefore, we’ll concentrate on the findings that deal most directly with the state of higher education as an industry and the health and sustainability of its institutions.

COLLEGE PRESIDENTS WORRIED ABOUT FINANCES & PUBLIC PERCEPTION

Collectively, the survey findings suggest that college presidents are worried about higher education’s fiscal health, deteriorating public perceptions of American higher education, and enrollment stabilization and growth, especially at tuition-dependent institutions.

One of the most striking aspects is that the survey did not reveal wide swings in college and university perceptions on these issues compared to previous years. The levels of concern remain high, likely indicating that these issues continue to be deeply troubling to leaders, but no single issue rose to the top. That having been said, the survey responses forecast continued uncertainty about the future of higher education.

PRESIDENTS EXPECT HIGHER EDUCATION MERGERS, CLOSINGS TO CONTINUE

Inside Higher Education (IHE) measured fiscal health in part by asking presidents about institutional mergers, closures, and acquisitions. They found, “About a third of the presidents agree that more than ten colleges or universities will close or merge in the next year, while another forty percent say at least five colleges will do so.”

A striking finding is that nearly 12 percent of college presidents “predict that their own institution could fold or combine in the next five years.”

Concern over mergers and closures relates directly to the financial health of the various sectors of higher education. On this issue, the results stabilized when compared to the wide swings of previous years. But there were differences across institutional sectors (e.g. public, private, community colleges, flagship, regional).

PRIVATE COLLEGE PRESIDENTS MORE CONFIDENT OF THEIR OWN SUSTAINABILITY

Private college presidents are the most confident in the viability of their institutions over the next decade. There was renewed hope, especially among private four-year college leaders, in the ability of their own institutions to be sufficiently nimble and adaptable to be sustainable going forward, an encouraging sign from previous pessimistic assessments.

One especially interesting finding questioned which sector was believed to have the most sustainable business model. The presidents identified wealthy elite private colleges and universities and public flagship universities as the best able to withstand uncertainty.

Interestingly, the numbers dropped off dramatically for the other sectors. As IHE noted, “Community colleges followed at 44 percent, with other public institutions (25 percent), private colleges (11 percent) and for-profit institutions (9 percent) lagging.”

Apparently, survey respondents did not share the confidence of private sector presidents, for instance, when judging the sustainability of small, private colleges as a sector.

LEADERS BELIEVE PUBLIC PERCEPTION OF HIGHER ED BASED ON MISUNDERSTANDING

In response to survey questions about the public perceptions of American higher education, “[p]residents overwhelmingly believe the public’s skepticism is based on misunderstandings about colleges’ wealth, how much they charge (and spend) and the overall purpose of higher education.”

The survey respondents believe that the public has been swayed by misperceptions about them. IHE noted: “Asked to assess which of several factors were the most responsible for declining public support, 98 percent of the presidents cited ‘concerns about college affordability and student debt’.” Other factors identified were the greater need for career preparation for students, perceptions of liberal political bias, and, to a much lesser extent, an under-representation of low-income students.

HIGHER EDUCATION HAS AN OPTICS PROBLEM BUT LEADERS HESITANT TO SPEAK OUT

These responses imply fairly strongly that American higher education has an optics problem. It continues to play defense rather than move forward on several fronts with an aggressive response to perceived misconceptions. In part, it comes down to higher education leaders’ — such as the presidents surveyed —  capacity and willingness to speak out.

IHE reported: “Asked whether they had responded to the turbulent political movement in 2017 by speaking out more on political issues, 55 percent said yes and 45 percent said no.” There was also little sense of introspection on whether there was much truth to negative public perceptions.

MEETING ENROLLMENT GOALS IS CONCERN FOR COLLEGE PRESIDENTS

Finally, there continues to be a high level of concern among college and university presidents about their ability to meet enrollment projections. IHE noted: “eighty-two percent of presidents described themselves as either ‘very’ (42 percent) or ‘somewhat concerned’ (40 percent) about meeting their institution’s ‘target number of undergraduates’.”  These numbers were down from previous years.

In this year’s survey, presidents worried about retaining students and finding enough full-pay students to subsidize institutional financial aid.

Inside Higher Education’s survey remains a valuable annual “pulse check” for higher education. The results this year suggest that, while the concerns remain the same, college presidents often perceive that the clouds are more ominous over the other types of institutions and for higher education generally.

There is an open question about how contemplative and self-reflective higher education is about itself. And there is clearly concern about how politics and public perception affect higher education policy and overall sustainability. The cumulative effect of the survey results suggests that higher education is in a period of steady transition.

Originally published on March 18, 2018 on Edvance Foundation.

Brian C. Mithell. Founding partner of Academic Innovators, a solutions company. Author of How to Run a College. Former president of Bucknell University