Analyzing Higher Education Presidential Perspectives

Always curious to learn more about how higher education administrators think and lead, I was eager to dive into the 2017 Inside Higher Ed Presidents Survey conducted by Gallup. Our engagement in studying presidents’ views on marketing in the 2016 Independent College Presidents Survey we conducted in collaboration with The Lawlor Group heightened my interest in the newly released study from IHE.

While both studies were targeted at knowing more about what keeps presidents awake at night, I appreciated the timely focus of the IHE study in measuring the influence of the 2016 election. This was particularly interesting to me since our study was conducted shortly before the national election; IHE’s survey was distributed in December of last year. We didn’t ask parallel questions in our surveys, so our takeaways on the “mood change” are only speculation. It’s worth noting that the IHE survey was conducted post-election/pre-inauguration, and I think it would be fascinating to run their survey again on July 1 to see if and how the political climate changes.

Appropriately, IHE Presidents Survey asked about the influence and engagement of presidents in political settings/conversation. Interestingly, they noted an uptick, particularly among those indicating their intention to be more vocal in the future.

The IHE-Gallup study compared similarly to the Lawlor-RHB study in the number of independent college presidents represented, and it was easy to see common findings when our questions overlapped. Most notably, financial stability is of high interest and concern to independent college presidents, particularly as it relates to longer-term sustainability. In both studies more than half of the presidents indicated confidence in stability over the long term. The IHE researchers noted that 91 percent of the presidents in their study agreed that elite private colleges, defined as those with one-billion-dollars-plus endowments, have sustainable business models. No surprises there.

Likewise, both studies indicate heightened concern about the issues of accessibility and the sufficiency of financial aid to meet the growing needs of families in paying for college. In the IHE/Gallup summary, the authors note that “private college presidents [82 percent] are nearly twice as likely as public college presidents [44 percent] to say they are very or somewhat concerned about enrolling enough students who do not need financial aid.” Further, both studies point out the enormous concern to maintain or grow enrollments. The IHE/Gallup study indicates that 91 percent of private baccalaureate presidents believe that greater attention nationally to student debt has influenced families to believe their colleges are less affordable than they actually are.

IHE/Gallup study

% of private baccalaureate presidents who are very concerned about:

  • having enough financial aid to enroll as many low-come students as desired: 60%
  • enrolling students who are likely to be retained and graduated: 63%
  • enrolling the target number of undergraduates: 73%

Lawlor/RHB study

% of independent college presidents who indicate:

  • families’ ability to pay as the top external market challenge: 63%
  • their campus has engaged in improving retention issues: 95%
  • their campus has engaged in increasing graduation rates: 90%

The gap in perception about the quality of race relations on campus vs other campuses was particularly interesting. While presidents indicate worsening race relations generally on campuses throughout the US, their assessments of race relations on their own campuses remain positive. This widening perception gap suggests either a commitment to positive spin for their campuses or some measure of detachment from the realities on their own campuses. Though we did not ask about race relations or marketing challenges to enrolling a diverse campus, several presidents responded to our open-ended questions indicating their concern about both.

The IHE/Gallup Presidents Survey measured response to two significant questions related to this sentiment. Only seven percent of private baccalaureate presidents agreed that “most Americans have an accurate view of the purpose of my sector of higher education.” The public sector, by comparison, responded with 25 percent in agreement with that statement. And private college presidents measured five percent in agreement with “most Americans have an accurate view of the purpose of higher education.” Listening via webinar to Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman discuss a climate of anti-intellectualism that may influence the perception of the value of higher education ignited a thought about a data point from our survey that distinguished “ability to pay” vs “willingness to pay.” When we asked presidents to identify the top external marketing challenges they faced, 63 percent indicated “families’ ability to pay” and 47 percent indicated “families’ willingness to pay.” Perceived value, of course, plays heavily in these market challenges.

The mission and great cause of education warrants leaders who are willing to face the challenges of the present and the future with hope and confidence. No easy task, as we’ve garnered not only from the results of the aforementioned studies, but also the on-going conversations we have with higher ed leaders in our day-to-day work. Certainly the role of the college or university president comes with inherent issues to cause sleepless nights. RHB’s constant monitoring of the perceptions of executive leadership is an advantage that we enjoy and bring to bear on each engagement we have; it’s our hope that you’ll find this information and perspective valuable as you address upcoming challenges on behalf of your institution.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.