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College Presidents Facing Challenges; Finding Solutions

Posted on Wednesday April 4, 2012 by Michael Keathley

As part of an ongoing series, Inside Higher Ed recently released the 2012 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Presidents. The survey contains responses to the key challenges, strategies, technology, politics, and athletic scandals facing college presidents today, and even includes a “what we do well” section. The invitation to respond was sent to 3, 145 presidents at U.S. public, private, non-profit, and for-profit, two and four-year institutions in order to achieve a good cross section of opinions; about one-third responded before the deadline (p.4).

Although there is much of interest within this document, the top challenges identified by the survey and creative ways college presidents are facing them is, perhaps, of greatest interest because the results indicate a strong need for a business approach to higher education although implying that education is a business is considered offensive to many.

The presidents were given a list of 14 challenges and asked to rank them in order of importance. The list and the results may be summarized as follows:

• Income challenges topped the list; in fact, the four challenges that ranked highest are: potential cuts in federal student aid; budget shortfalls; declines in state support; rising tuition/affordability. Related to this was financial support from alumni and corporate sponsors.

• Serving students ranked next as a category, and includes maintaining the quality of academic programs, student assessment and educational outcomes, remediation and student readiness for college, and increased competition for students, paradoxically balanced by the question of whether or not their institutions could accommodate increased enrollment and demand if they were successful in recruiting.

• Expenses in relation to retirement liabilities and a lack of senior faculty retiring to create new [and much cheaper] positions for newer instructors. (Table 1, p.6)

Although nowhere in the report is the nefarious word ‘business’ used, it seems clear from the categorical summation above that at the core of the challenges is the basic business model of keeping expenses down, customer service and satisfaction up, and income even higher. This becomes more apparent when the survey results ranked the solutions being discussed at the respondents’ respective institutions

The presidents surveyed said the following six actions are being discussed at their respective institutions:

1. Exploring new collaboration opportunities for academic programs with other institutions
2. Moving away from [a] classroom-based model of instruction, shifting more classes online
3. Eliminating underperforming academic programs
4. Streamlining administrative positions
5. Reorganizing (reducing) administrative units
6. Reorganizing student support services (Table 3, p.9)

Given that the chief category of concern was income, it’s not a surprise that institutions would seek new partnerships to reduce costs and increase enrollment. Collaborations like 2-2 agreements, in which students may complete two years at a community college and then transfer with automatic acceptance into a four-year degree program at a university, provide not only increased revenue for both schools involved, but a more stable income for each institution. The university, for instance will have a clearer idea of how many students may be entering their institution and how much tuition they will bring in. The community college also benefits with the proverbial carrot to dangle in front of their students, who will be given an easier path to a bachelor’s degree.

Solutions two and six above are a clear response to customer demand, as students must feel guided and supported as they seek out an institution and continue along their academic and career paths. The demand for online course and program offerings continues to skyrocket; therefore, universities are increasing eLearning opportunities both to meet student demand and to increase profits.

Finally, expenses are being dealt with in the logical way a business would approach the situation. Eliminating waste and streamlining processes that could be accomplished more efficiently and effectively is a logical step. What is interesting is that the expenses related to retirement or lack of retirements is not being discussed. In fact, another survey response to the question of what solutions should be discussed, “aggressively promoting early retirement programs” ranked number one (Table 4, p. 10).

One example of a university that turned itself around in relation to the above survey results is Post University. President Tom Samph recently explained in the Huffington Post that this university was in danger of closing about eight years ago “due to increased expenses, declining enrollments, dried-up revenues and dwindling endowments” (2 April, 2012). Then a new management team took action.

Realizing, for instance, that an increasing number of students are non-traditional students with jobs and families who want online courses, Post University reinvented itself to increase the eLearning options and to cater more to non-traditional students. The university also took on the entrepreneurial spirit by creating what Samph calls “a start-up culture and mentality” (2 April, 2012). The measurable result, according to Samph, is that online enrollment went from 150 students mostly within the State of Connecticut to 10,000 students, 65% of whom reside outside of the state (2 April, 2012).

In addition to meeting students’ needs, Samph offers two other recommendations to other universities wishing to do what Post University has done:

1. “Be a data-driven institution” (Samph, T. 2 April, 2012). At Post University, metrics are collected in a variety of ways to more accurately assess the success of everything from student support services to program effectiveness. This is also done to keep the university accountable, especially financially. Metrics are shared with the Board of Trustees on a weekly basis, for example.

2. “Operate like a business—because you are [one]” (Samph, T. 2 April, 2012). Samph explains that Post University did not have huge endowments or external sources of funding; this forced them to function like a business, fully accessing profit and loss and the connection to student service. He states the administration at Post University realized that they could not keep doing things the same way; only by changing and adapting with the times could they grow and improve.

One takeaway from the Inside Higher Ed survey and the example that Post University provides is that it’s time for the various types of postsecondary institutions to dialog not only internally, but also externally with one another, so that solutions to their common problems may be found. They must also take a more entrepreneurial approach if they are going to survive.

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