Federal Accountability and Financial Pressure: A Survey of Presidents
March 7, 2014

College presidents generally agree that their institutions should be reporting much more information about the career and other outcomes of their graduates -- they just don't necessarily want the federal government doing it, Inside Higher Ed's new survey of college presidents reveals.

Three-quarters of presidents say their institutions should be reporting the debt levels, job placement rates and graduate school enrollment rates of recent graduates, for instance (though fewer say they are doing so now). But just half of campus leaders agree that it is "appropriate for the federal government to collect and publish data on career and other outcomes of college graduates" (with public and for-profit college leaders much more likely to say so than their private nonprofit peers), and just 13 percent believe the government has a "good chance" of collecting such data accurately.

Those are among the key findings of Inside Higher Ed's fourth annual Survey of College and University Presidents, conducted by Gallup Education and released today in advance of the American Council on Education's annual meeting.

About the Survey

Inside Higher Ed's 2014 Survey of College and University Presidents was conducted in conjunction with researchers from Gallup. Inside Higher Ed regularly surveys key higher ed professionals on a range of topics.

On Tuesday, April 2 at noon Eastern, Inside Higher Ed Editors Doug Lederman and Scott Jaschik will share and analyze the findings and answer readers' questions in a Webinar. To register, please click here.

The Inside Higher Ed survey of presidents was made possible in part by advertising from Academic Partnerships, Hobsons, Jenzabar and Pearson.

A total of 846 college chief executives participated in the survey -- a response rate of 27 percent, with representative response rates from various segments of public and private nonprofit institutions as well as for-profit colleges. Presidents were granted anonymity to encourage candor, but their answers were coded by institution type, allowing for analysis of differences by sector. The margin of error is 3.4 percentage points. A report of the survey's results can be downloaded here.

Among other key results:

  • Nearly two-thirds of presidents are confident about the sustainability of their institution’s financial model over the next five years -- but that proportion falls to half over 10 years. Asked to rate the financial viability of various sectors of colleges, presidents were most pessimistic about non-wealthy private colleges, for-profit institutions, and non-flagship public universities.
  • Just 5 percent of all campus leaders strongly agree that the economic downturn that started in 2008 is effectively over at their institution.
  • Fewer than one in five presidents agree that assertions that a "significant number" of colleges face "existential financial crisis" are "overblown."
  • Seven of 10 presidents believe that in the wake of recently publicized incidences of sexual assault, higher education institutions must improve how they respond to allegations of sexual assault on campus.
  • Most presidents (90 percent) say that, generally speaking, the state of race relations on their campus is good.
  • The vast majority of presidents (94 percent) oppose the stance taken by the American Studies Association to back a boycott of Israeli universities.

Accountability and the Federal Role

College leaders have already made clear their skepticism about President Obama's August proposal to create a new system to rate colleges: a poll of college presidents late last year by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed found that just 2 percent plan believed the ratings plan would be "very effective" at making higher education affordable, and only 19 percent think it will have a positive impact on their institution. And in public comments submitted to the Education Department about the proposal last month, college groups and institutions, almost to a one, both offered pragmatic concerns about how the ratings regime may harm higher education and questioned whether producing such a system was an appropriate role for the federal government to play in the first place.

Inside Higher Ed sought in its annual survey of presidents this spring to dig more deeply into questions about what campuses should be reporting to the public, and the legitimacy of the federal role in prodding them.

Asked to respond to a set of statements with the Obama ratings plan in mind, 17 percent of presidents strongly agreed, and another 33 percent agreed, that "it is appropriate for the federal government to collect and publish data on career and other outcomes of college graduates." Eleven percent strongly disagreed, and another 17 percent disagreed. 

As seen in the table at right, differences between sectors and segments of higher education were stark. A full 60 percent of public-college and 63 percent of for-profit-college presidents agreed or strongly agreed that it is appropriate for the government to collect and publish outcomes data, compared to 34 percent of leaders of private nonprofit institutions. Chief executives of doctoral institutions, public and private, were less likely than their peers to support a federal role in reporting such outcomes.

Percent of Presidents Agreeing It is Appropriate for U.S. to Public Outcomes Data  
All  50%
Public  60%
--Doctoral 37%
--Master's 53%
--Baccalaureate 65%
--Associate 64%
Private Nonprofit 34%
--Doctoral/Master's 33%
--Baccalaureate 36%
For-Profit 63%

Presidents were much more unified in their views about how well the government would fulfill such a role -- incompetently, they agree. Asked if the government has a "good chance" of collecting and reporting accurately on higher education outcomes, 9 percent of private nonprofit presidents (on the low end) and 16 percent of public university leaders (on the high end) answered positively.

Does the fact that only half of college presidents say it is "appropriate" for the feds to collect and publish data about graduates' career outcomes mean higher ed leaders philosophically question the government's accountability role?

Even supporters of the federal rating system chose not to read the results that way.

“It’s encouraging that a majority of presidents who responded share our view that the department can play a role in helping to increase public information about colleges," Jamienne Studley, acting under secretary of education, said in a statement. "We believe that partnering with colleges and other postsecondary institutions to increase information and craft a ratings system that empowers consumers will encourage colleges to improve their performance, and ultimately drive a better, more affordable education for all students.”

Donald E. Heller, dean of the education school at Michigan State University and an expert on higher education finance and federal student aid, said he doubted many presidents were answering the question about the appropriateness of the federal role theoretically, given the looming likelihood of a federally imposed ratings system -- with the results linked to how much federal student aid campuses receive, if the administration gets its way.

"There's obviously a lot of concern about what's going to happen with the proposals," said Heller. "If you'd asked that question before last August, you might have gotten a different answer. Right now everybody is probably thinking about it in terms of tying career outcomes to student aid, and a lot of people don't like that. The reality is that it's hard to separate the two right now."

What Data Are Available -- and Should Be

The survey posed another set of questions about student outcomes information that campuses now provide. Presidents were asked to whether their institutions made certain data about their graduates available on their websites now, and then were asked which of those metrics they believed they should make public. More than half of the chief executives said their campuses already published the institution-level loan debt (61 percent), institution-level job placement rate (58 percent), and graduate school enrollment rate (52 percent) of recent graduates, as well as information about the ways students are living meaningful lives (56 percent).

Far fewer reported releasing program-level debt (19 percent) or job placement (45 percent) figures or the starting salaries of recent graduates (31 percent), and hardly any reported the annual income of graduates 5 or 10 years out (9 and 4 percent, respectively). Many experts say that the program-level data are crucial and that, within a college, institutionwide rate can mask wide variation.

Campus CEOs were also asked whether they should report those figures -- and in almost all cases, the proportions answering yes were much larger than those who said they reported them now, as seen in the table below.

  % of Presidents Who Say Data Are Available Now % of Presidents Who Say Data Should Be Available
Institution-level loan debt 61% 78%
Program-level average loan debt of graduates 19% 53%
Institution-level job placement rates for graduates 58% 80%
Program-level job placement rates for graduates 45% 74%
Graduate school enrollment rates of recent graduates 52% 78%
Starting salaries of recent graduates 31% 53%
Annual income of graduates 5 years out 9% 38%
Annual income of graduates 10 years out 4% 35%
Ways students are living meaningful lives 56% 74%

The survey also asked presidents how easy it was to find outcomes data on their websites, and most acknowledged imperfection: Just 9 percent said it was very easy, and 38 percent somewhat easy. For-profit colleges were the outlier, with 85 percent saying it was very or somewhat easy. Presidents were virtually unanimous in agreeing that it should be easy.

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said she suspected reasons both philosophical and practical for why some of the data points are now spottily reported.

"There are a significant proportion of American private nonprofit institutions who simply don't believe it's the government's business to know about," she said, and many other campus leaders are troubled by the prospect that career-related outcomes will be weighted over other factors in judging colleges, in ways that could make higher education look like a purely vocational enterprise. "All of this focus on salaries or return on investment goes against a larger belief about the values of the liberal arts."

But there are also significant gaps right now in what institutions could accurately report even if they wanted to, she said, especially when it comes to longer-term income figures and meaningful program-level outcomes at small institutions, given the lack of availability of good data.

Zakiya Smith, a former Education Department official who now works at the Lumina Foundation, called it a "huge step forward" that "the majority of college presidents are open to the idea that more outcome data should be more public." But Smith was struck by the "discrepancy about how public the information actually is and how public it should be," she said. "Most of the college presidents felt they should be doing more than they are. If you think you should be sharing information about job placement, say, then why aren't you?"

The Opposite of Rose-Colored Glasses

With the financial markets continuing to boom and better economic news emanating from many states, it's perhaps surprising that college presidents responded to a set of financially oriented questions with a good bit of pessimism.

They don't feel like good times have returned for them: Just 5 percent strongly agreed (and 17 percent agreed) that the "economic downturn that started in 2008 is effectively over at my institution," while 54 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.

 

 

Even fewer presidents (18 percent) agreed that "reports that a significant number of higher education institutions are facing existential financial crisis are overblown"; 60 percent disagreed with that statement, which means that they buy into the idea that the existence of many colleges is in doubt.

As is often the case in these surveys, they are somewhat more sanguine about their own institution's future -- but far from assured.

Six in 10 presidents (62 percent) expressed confidence in the "sustainability" of their institution's financial model over five years, but that figure fell to 50 percent over 10 years, and with much greater variation among college sectors. (The presidents are slightly more confident than their campuses' business officers, as seen in the chart, drawn from Inside Higher Ed's survey of chief financial officers last summer.)

 

 

For-profit-college presidents were most optimistic, with 70 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing that they were confident in their financial model over a decade, followed by those at public master's and doctoral institutions (56 and 53 percent, respectively). Community college presidents (44 percent) and those from private nonprofit baccalaureate colleges (45 percent) were on the low end.

Asked about the viability of various sectors of higher education, wealthy institutions, unsurprisingly, fared best: elite private universities and colleges with large endowments and public flagship universities fared best, with two-thirds of presidents expressing confidence in those institutions' financial sustainability. Non-elite private colleges and for-profit institutions rated worst, with just 16 percent and 19 percent of respondents saying they were confident in the financial futures of those institutions.

Heller, the Michigan State education dean, said he was surprised by the negativity the presidents displayed, given that "for the most part we seem to be turning the economy around, if slowly," and that relatively few campuses have closed in recent years, given some predictions of massive dislocation. 

He said he suspected the presidents may be responding not only to the economic situation but to the accountability proposals coming out of Washington, which many leaders may fear will harm their bottom lines.

"We have to keep in mind that their job is to be nervous," Heller said. "They have to be on guard at all times."

How Presidents View the Controversies

In the last year, many presidents who might have felt that their plates were overflowing with issues of politics, money and strategy found themselves drawn into issues that have polarized many campuses and attracted widespread attention, in and out of academe. Inside Higher Ed asked presidents for the first time this year for their views on the state of campus race relations, how campuses handle sexual assault charges, and the debate over boycotting Israeli universities.

On race relations and responding to sexual assaults, most presidents felt that their institutions were doing well, but they were less certain about higher education as a whole. On the boycott, presidents were overwhelmingly against it, and skeptical of the value of scholarly associations taking stands on political issues.

During the last year, student activists have made the issue of sexual assault on campus -- hardly a new concern -- much more prominent, filing complaints with the Education Department, filing lawsuits and attracting press attention. They have complained about campus officials who discouraged them from filing complaints, charged that support for sexual assault victims is inadequate, and asserted that some assailants have been given slaps on the wrist for serious crimes against women.

President Obama has spoken out about the issue, as his administration has reminded colleges of their obligations to protect students. Numerous colleges have in fact changed policies or added resources for women in recent months.

But despite a continuing barrage of complaints that institutions aren't handling the issue well, most presidents disagree. Asked to respond to the statement "my institution handles sexual assault allegations appropriately," 52 percent of presidents said they strongly agreed, 43 percent said they agreed, and while 5 percent were neutral, 0 percent disagreed.

While there seems to be overwhelming presidential confidence on the issue (across sectors) in the institutions they lead, most say that higher education institutions generally may need to do a better job. When asked if the recent incidents "have led me to believe that higher education institutions must improve the way they respond to allegations of sexual assault on campuses," 73 percent of public presidents, 66 percent of private presidents, and 78 percent of for-profit presidents agreed or strongly agreed.

A majority of presidents were generally dubious of the idea that has surfaced in a number of complaints that athletes who are accused of sexual assault are protected. Only 21 percent agreed or strongly agreed that athletes "are less likely to be held responsible for their actions than are other students."

Presidents seemed open to the idea (advanced by some other experts on the issues) that local police, rather than campus police are best suited to investigate allegations of sexual assault. Forty-nine percent agreed or strongly agreed with that statement, and with 21 percent taking a neutral position, only 30 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Race Relations

Higher education has long struggled with issues of race -- from philosophical debates over inequality and admissions policies to near weekly incidents in which some Greek group on a campus has held a party mocking some minority group. The last year has seen plenty of philosophical debates, and plenty of offensive parties, but also events that managed to stun educators and the public.

At San Jose State University in November, white students were charged in months of racial harassment of a black student in their suite -- tormenting him by calling him "3/5" (a reference to the Constitution's original failure to treat black people as equal), putting a bicycle lock around his neck, hanging a Confederate flag and a poster of Hitler, and more.

At the University of Alabama, the student newspaper revealed a history of white sororities (powerful institutions on the campus) systematically rejecting black applicants -- and others suggested that the problem was not unique to that university. On several prominent campuses -- such as the University of California at Los Angeles (see video at right) and the University of Michigan -- black students took to social media to describe how isolated and frustrated they feel.

Amid these (and many other) incidents, all of which took place before the presidents were surveyed, they generally give their institutions good grades on race relations. Ninety percent believe that, on their own campus, race relations are excellent or good. Only 1 percent believe race relations are poor.

However, they gave the institutions they lead much better grades than higher education as a whole. And asked about whether race relations are better or worse in higher education than they were five years ago, presidents were much more likely to say better (44 percent) than worse (5 percent).

How College Presidents Judge State of Race Relations

  On Their Own Campus In Higher Ed Generally
Excellent 30% 2%
Good 60% 51%
Fair 10% 45%
Poor 1% 3%

The Israel Boycott

Many college presidents who normally may not pay much attention to the deliberations of the American Studies Association found themselves in December and January rushing to issue statements about the group's decision to back a boycott of Israeli universities. While the movement to boycott Israeli universities has strong support in Europe, and has had some backing in the United States, the American Studies Association's decision prompted much debate in and out of higher education. Most American scholarly associations have said that such boycotts violate important principles of academic freedom, although supporters of the Israel boycott have insisted that they are backing academic freedom.

Many critics of the boycott called on college and university presidents to condemn the American studies group's vote and many did so -- sometimes to the frustration of faculty members who objected to the presidents taking an anti-boycott stand.

Asked whether they favor or oppose the American Studies Association's stance, 6 percent said that they favor it and 94 percent said they oppose it. (The greatest level of support for the boycott was in for-profit higher education, where 11 percent of presidents backed it.) The large majority opposed to the association's boycott of Israeli universities is consistent with the public statements of many presidents.

But as far as Inside Higher Ed has been able to tell, not a single president has taken a public stance backing the vote of the American Studies Association, so the 6 percent of presidents who do so have been quiet about their views. (The survey of presidents is strictly confidential, so Inside Higher Ed does not know who they are.)

The presidential skepticism of the boycott movement appears to extend beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the idea of scholarly associations taking stands on global issues. Asked to respond to the question, "Is it generally helpful for higher education when scholarly associations publicize their stance on world issues through boycotts and resolutions?," 18 percent said it was generally helpful, and 82 percent said that it was generally unhelpful.

 

 

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