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Leading in Turbulent Times: A Survey of Presidents

APRIL 2, 2018

According to an Inside Higher Education survey of more than one-thousand American higher education presidents, about a third of the chief executive officers agree that more than ten colleges or universities will close or merge in the next year while another 40 percent say at least five colleges will do do so.  And after a year in which the number of colleges either closing or merging ticked upward, nearly one in eight college presidents predict their own institution could fold or combine in the next five years.  

About a third of campus leaders agree with the statement that "the perception of colleges as places that are intolerant of conservative views is accurate."  Similarly, 51 percent agree that the 2016 election "exposed that academe is disconnected from much of American society."

While the survey touches on a range of issues, including the price of higher education and president's preparation for their jobs, most of the questions and answers center around two major topics:  political and public opinion of higher education and campus enrollment and finances.  

Ultimately, most institutions' financial health ebbs and flows with enrollments, which was clearly reflected in the presidential responses.  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 students, particularly undergraduates.  This was most pronounced among chief executive officers of private baccalaureate colleges where 73 percent they were very concerned about their undergraduate enrollment goal.  

More presidents said they were "very concerned" about giving out too much aid to students who may not need it than about recruiting first-generation students (14 percent) and Pell Grants (13 percent).  The fewest presidents said they were concerned about enrolling classes that will improve their institution's standing in rankings or talented athletes. 

The Inside Higher Education survey covered a wide range of topics, but the concerns about enrollment and finances were the most telling at every sector, public and private, undergraduate and graduate. While the study did not distinguish between religious and non-religious institutions within the private sector, research about Christian higher education clearly demonstrates that Christ-centered colleges and universities are equally challenged.  These are turbulent times relative to higher education enrollment and finances.

Larry J. McKinney
Higher Education Consultant

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