Survey Says: The 2015 Higher Ed Survey of College and University Presidents

Jointly sponsored by Inside Higher Education and Gallup for the past five years, this survey offers insight into the challenges facing college and university presidents, whether public or private. It also seeks their perspectives on a wide range of “hot button” education issues.

To determine their findings, Gallup administered 647 web surveys from college presidents, including 338 public institutions, 262 private colleges and universities, 26 college and university systems, and 21 for-profit institutions. The participation rate was 22 percent. The data were not statistically weighted. It is unclear how the “issues” topics were chosen.

In some ways, the results are predictable. As expected, the Obama administration’s efforts to rate colleges and universities have little support. Only about one in ten presidents rate the proposal favorably. Mr. Obama’s second major proposal to make community colleges free for students has more support but is heavily divided along sector lines, with the private colleges opposed to this plan.

The findings on sexual assault were more surprising. The survey found that “it is appropriate to use a ‘preponderance of evidence’ standard, rather than ‘guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,’ in adjudicating sexual assault complaints.” About one-third of those surveyed agree that sexual assault is prevalent on American campuses; however, only six percent think that sexual assault is prevalent at their institutions. Over half blame the role of fraternities in campus sexual assault cases.

The same pattern appears when looking at race relations. Eighty-one percent of the presidents believe that race relations are generally good at their institutions but about sixty percent believe that they are the same as they were five years ago. Forty-four percent said that they were better in 2014 than they were five years before.

On social issues, the IHE/Gallup survey seems to reinforce the theory that all politics is local. The presidents recognize that the fire is smoldering on the nearby hillside but do not seem to understand that they are under the same drought restrictions favoring conditions that could cause the fire to spread into their neighborhood.

While it is obvious that any discussion like sexual abuse or race relations should be set in a broader context during campus debate, are persistent and historic challenges in American society typically worse next door? Or, is the problem a crisis on a campus only when someone lights the match?

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the questions on the Gallup survey that deal with the financial conditions facing American colleges and universities.

In the IHE/Gallup survey, 56 percent of the presidents indicated that they are largely confident in the sustainability of their institution’s financial model over the next five years. Of greater interest, perhaps, is that 39 percent of the presidents say that they “are less confident in their institution’s financial model over the next ten years.” IHE/Gallup note, however, that “both of those figures are down sharply from the 2014 version of this survey, when 62 percent of campus leaders surveyed expressed confidence in their institutions’ sustainability over five years, and 50 percent did so over a decade.”

Colleges and universities are, after all, resilient places. Just ask them before they close. What is most discouraging is that most college and university presidents believe that they are financially sustainable institutions. IHE/Gallup would provide a service next year if they looked deeper at the financial health of American higher education. The demographic, enrollment, persistence, graduation, employment and financial aid numbers don’t match their optimism.

In fairness, the financial models have improved. For the past decade, most institutions have adopted integrated financial models to produce a more nuanced understanding of their financial standing. But for most, their financial modeling is tied to an annual budget. Longer-term forecasting is often only a series of planning options postponed for later consideration.

It’s an interesting mix of numbers, hopes and prayers with the worry passed on to the next crop of presidents.

The point is that the biggest issue facing American colleges and universities today is their financial health.

For most institutions, there is still a failure to connect the dots, linking and fully integrating the college’s strategic plan, campus master plan, debt placement, tuition and fee revenue and fundraising campaign to its financial model. If strategy drives fundraising, for example, doesn’t it make sense for trustees to understand clearly how better to link fundraising to the prudent and timely use of debt, set metrics-measured fundraising targets, and lay off for a while on their new bond issues and tuition increase binges?

The IHE/Gallup survey suggests that half of the college and university presidents see their institutions as sustainable. How – exactly – is this clear without better integration of the tools that they have at their disposal, more careful planning, and progressive thinking about how the numbers relate to the strategy across American higher education?

“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,“ as Mr. Rogers always said.

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