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.
Scott Jaschik recently interpreted the findings from the 2017 Survey of Admission Directors, sponsored by Inside Higher Education and Gallup and drawn from a sample of 453 admission directors. While the full discussion of these findings is too complex for this space, the general conclusions, especially those specific to enrollment patterns, are telling.
Nearly two-thirds of colleges missed enrollment targets
The most startling finding is that “only 34 percent of colleges met new student enrollment targets this year by May 1, the traditional date by which most institutions hope to have a class set.” This number is down from 37 percent a year ago and 42 percent two years ago.
At the public doctoral institutions, the story was a bit more rosy, but even there only 59 percent of the institutions met their May 1 enrollment target. Only 22 percent of public/bachelor’s/master’s institutions, 27 percent of community colleges, and 36 percent of private colleges and universities met their May enrollment targets.
This is a growing issue since most colleges and universities are heavily dependent on tuition revenue; hence, the size of the incoming and returning classes directly impacts their financial bottom line.
Admissions leaders see fundamental shift in enrollment trends
The reaction of admissions leaders is especially interesting. For this year, 55 percent said that they were very concerned while 30 percent said they were somewhat concerned. This number increased slightly from the 54 percent who were very concerned a year ago and more dramatically from the 31 percent who expressed deep concern two years ago.
There seems to be a growing recognition that the numbers will not support older, more favorable patterns of enrollment. In short, admission officers understand that something fundamental has changed.
That’s a good beginning for those worried about how demographics, consumer whim, political expediency, sticker price, tuition discounting, and retention and graduation rates intersect to produce this softness in the market.
The IHE/Gallup survey also looked at how colleges and universities are reacting to this softness, asking about the tools that admissions officials will use to strengthen their market share. Among the key findings:
- Many colleges, especially private institutions, appear to be focusing recruiting strategies on students with the capacity to pay full tuition and fees.
- In the realm of international student recruiting, many say that American higher education has become too dependent on students from a few countries, but most admissions directors don’t think that’s true of their institutions.
- While most colleges don’t check applicants’ social media, some do — and some applicants are being rejected or having acceptances revoked because of their posts.
- Officials at many colleges, more public than private, say they are stepping up recruitment of rural and low-income white students in the wake of the election, and a small minority of colleges is stepping up recruitment of conservative students.
- Admissions directors strongly believe that higher education has an image problem with ramifications for enrollment patterns — and that image problem may be the worst for liberal arts colleges.
- Admissions directors — from both public and private institutions — believe they are losing potential applicants because of concerns about debt. But private and public college admissions leaders differ on how much debt is reasonable.
- The idea of free tuition in public higher education is seen by most private college admissions directors as a threat to their institutions. While admissions directors in public higher education are more open to the idea, they have areas of skepticism as well.
Enrollment solutions being considered are incremental, not systemic
What’s striking about the tools employed by the admissions officials is that they are tactical and incremental. Those surveyed do not appreciate that the solution must be more comprehensive and linked to a broader view of how higher education must adapt to the complex intersection of the changes that are buffeting it. Their solutions are scattershot and more like a band-aid applied to surface wounds, with no apparent connection among the challenges and opportunities that American higher education faces.
The problem is simple to diagnose. America’s colleges and universities utilize operating and financial models developed in the 1960s and 1970s that no longer work for them.
It was possible to disguise the growing crisis now affecting higher education when improving demographics, state and federal government policy, and a simple “revenue must meet expense” financial accounting successfully disguised what was coming. The assumption was that rising family incomes would overcome recessions and any attempt to cap revenue built into older tuition models. But the global economy has changed and the path ahead is far less certain.
That’s not to say that the sky is falling on America’s colleges and universities.
Each institution must find its own unique solution because their historic circumstances, market positions, and financial resources differ.
It is a call for action. The trustees, administrators and faculty must have the stamina to lead through creative solutions and at a faster pace than the incremental changes suggested by the IHE survey.
The range and scope of academic programs in higher education has become increasingly complex. New programs emerge almost daily to adjust to consumer demands and workforce needs. Applicants can easily become confused as they attempt to judge quality, complexity, cost, and a return on investment.
The result is often a mishmash of academic offerings developed upon a foundation that no longer seems to be built upon bedrock principles.
- What is the purpose of a new program offering?
- Is it a response to workforce demands?
- Does the program emerge from a particular academic strength for which the college or university is noted?
- Do the outputs – notably an education path that leads to a productive life – match the potential of the program?
These questions mask a transition that now faces American higher education. Consumer demands and expectations shift depending upon factors that go well beyond the academic program. One of the most notable shifts since the Great Recession has been the consumer attention paid to why students choose majors in employable fields. The best example is the effort to develop public policy to promote education in STEM fields.
By itself, choosing a STEM field is an admirable decision. America needs more scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. The jobs often pay well, and STEM graduates contribute enormously to the common wealth.
But the country also needs social workers, poets, and museum curators. For America to prosper, its policy makers must not pick winners and losers, narrowly choosing economic benefit and workforce development in key fields over breadth and the social good in American society.
America is only great when it is as complex as the problems that it faces and the potential that it promises to those who seek a college degree.
This is where American colleges and universities receive a failing grade. It is ludicrous and shortsighted to expect that colleges should adopt a mindset that effectively says, “build it and they will come.” (Apologies to “Field of Dreams.”) To do so would presume that American families understand what colleges do, how they educate, and why they exist.
For many families, a college education is simply a pathway to a good job. In the last century, this argument was sufficient and filled seats when demographics and government policy worked in favor of college admission practices.
College Admissions Now a Marriage of Academics and Business
These days are gone. College admissions has become a marriage of academics and business, introduced by the admissions office through marketing and communications strategies and tactics. Critics will complain that education is a business. They believe that this business mindset is the root cause of many of higher education’s problems.
But others will point out that those families who pay steep tuition prices – tuition discounts disguised as scholarships notwithstanding – have every right to understand more about what they are buying.
College Marketing Fails to Differentiate Academic Programs from Competitors
What is most lacking on this issue is clarity – or expressed differently – a coherent and compelling academic marketing strategy. The problem begins with how colleges market their academic programs. While there are innumerable exceptions that display creativity and focus to lay out quality indicators and outcomes expectations imaginatively, most are described by worthless four-color brochures that fail to differentiate how their program differs from those of peer and aspirant institutions.
Academic Programs Without Direct Career Outcomes Often Given Short Shrift
It’s a shame because there are many outstanding academic programs that receive scant attention after the deals struck among the promotional efforts of marketing, communications, admissions, financial aid, and academic leadership. It’s easy to promote management, nursing, or engineering because these academic disciplines are linked to employment outcomes that are easily understood by consumers.
If a college or university offers a comprehensive field of academic programs, however, it is equally critical to think imaginatively about how students in fields like English, history, and sociology will be shaped by the unique quality of the academic program that they will consider.
Faculty are Keepers of the Higher Education Flame
The answer to “why us” in a particular field begins by emphasizing the quality and creativity of the faculty. The faculty are the keepers of the flame, outlasting students, administrators, and trustees in tenure. This means that faculty must be chosen well and resourced sufficiently.
But the defense of any academic program to a broader constituency must go well beyond dollars to explain what contributions an academic program makes to learning, how it fits into a broader curriculum, and why its presence is important among the academic disciplines offered.
We can predict that as the business of higher education and academics continue to be intertwined, there will be growing calls to defend the size of upper division classes, the amount of money appropriated, and the number of majors graduated in a particular discipline.
Before we get there as a society, however, it is critical to build a case for the academic programs that a college supports by explaining what’s unique and special about them. It may turn out that differentiation communicated through better marketing aligns best with a college’s mission and consumer interest.