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The 2020 CIC Presidents Institute was held at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort in Florida.

Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images

MARCO ISLAND, Fla. -- An annual gathering of private college presidents proved to be a story of many different disconnects this year.

Disconnects between markets, domestic and international. Disconnects between different institutions, stressed and strengthening. Disconnects between campuses and the public, or at least a public narrative of skepticism toward higher education that many presidents desperately want to change.

The gathering -- the Council of Independent Colleges Presidents Institute -- began with an announcement that it had grown to its largest size ever, with 851 participants including 360 presidents and 175 of their spouses and partners in attendance. But the very next topic at its opening event was a keynote speech with a different tone, as attendees heard about population trends that are placing a significant burden on their financial and enrollment outlooks.

To be sure, not every institution at the conference is under financial or enrollment stress. Some attendees were reporting their largest-ever fundraising campaigns or great successes attracting students with smart marketing, recruiting and pricing campaigns.

Still, the conference is heavily populated with representatives of small, nonwealthy private colleges that draw most of their students locally. They are exactly the type of institution most likely to struggle with enrollment or balancing the books. And in recent years, CIC has been providing more programming to help them address their concerns.

Even as many attendees acknowledge the sector's problems, they feel a disconnect between the value they offer students and what they see as a public narrative unfairly attacking them as unaffordable and out of touch.

“Public, the journalists, officials have come to doubt the value of our demonstrably effective institutions,” CIC president Richard Ekman said as the conference opened Saturday. “So restoring public confidence in higher education and in private colleges must be a top priority for all of us here. We know that doing so requires more than rebutting our critics point by point, although we must be relentless in correcting false facts.”

Ekman was followed by Nathan Grawe, social sciences professor at Carleton College in Minnesota and the author of the ubiquitous 2018 book Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press). Grawe has become an in-demand speaker sharing research findings from the book that project many colleges will have a difficult time enrolling traditional-age students in coming years because of a post-recession “birth dearth.”

Large drops in numbers of high school graduates enrolling in regional four-year colleges after 2017 are expected to plateau in the next few years. But a return to the annual demand growth of the past seems unlikely for such colleges, and the sector is likely to experience sharp declines again by the second part of the decade.

Grawe expressed optimism because of constructive energy private colleges are harnessing as they try to address the enrollment challenge. There are other reasons to be optimistic, such as rising numbers of Latinx students attending college and a Latinx population that is generally becoming more wealthy -- providing a ray of hope for cash-strapped institutions that rely on tuition revenue to stay in operation.

Optimism aside, Grawe cautioned against people's instinct to double down on old assumptions when confronted with unpleasant information.

“They will try to avoid,” he said. “And it turns out, the more letters you have after your name, the more likely you are to engage in this.”

Presidents asked many questions about Grawe's projections: Would adding adult students to his analysis change regional colleges' outlook? What would happen if economic conditions change, pushing more students to enroll in college when they can't find jobs? What would happen if institutions addressed concerns about affordability? How might graduate enrollment change?

The what-ifs might not change the outlook for many colleges that are heavily dependent on local 18- to 24-year-old populations. From a strategic standpoint, though, they might make sense for presidents trying to prepare institutions for the coming decade.

“When you're on that plateau, you're in a different world,” Grawe said. “You're in something of a world of scarcity, where there aren't just more students you can go recruit. We have to think differently, as a result.”

In sessions and in conversations throughout the conference, presidents demonstrated some of the ways they're trying to prepare for the future. They discussed corporate partnerships, outreach to adult learners and finding ways to better meet student needs. Some discussed the overcoming challenges facing rural institutions, like isolation and regional economic development.

Presidents were also buoyed Monday by talk of employers needing the critical thinking and learning skills that their institutions emphasize.

And they heard from a global higher education leader who sees opportunity in international students. Mariët Westermann, vice chancellor of New York University Abu Dhabi and former executive vice president for programs and research at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, spoke Sunday of a disconnect between the stresses small colleges in the U.S. are feeling and rising demand for education in regions like Africa, the Middle East and India.

“All I hear is of unmet need, versus in America we're headed obviously for a situation where we're having too low a birth rate to fill our seats,” Westermann said. “So I think there is an opportunity coming no matter what happens in our political landscape.”

She acknowledged broad challenges, however.

“While global citizenship -- this idea of global citizenship -- seems a necessary ideal for a planet as under duress as it is, the shine has gone off of that idea a little in recent years,” she said.

Indeed, talk of opportunity contrasted with some presidents' insecurities, concerns and discomfort. A session on building a senior leadership team for stressed institutions was heavily attended. Presidents grilled members of the press about free college proposals from Democratic presidential candidates and on what some see as an unfair public narrative about out-of-control student debt.

Presidents are arguably feeling the stress of forces much bigger than their own institutions bearing down on private, regional, nonwealthy colleges. Those forces include income inequality, a suddenly skeptical public, leery policy makers and, some whisper in private conversations, campuses where complacency dominates. Some boards or faculty members wish to return to the past, one president confided. But the past is not coming back.

Under such conditions, it should be no surprise that presidential tenures have been shortening. Those short tenures create a challenge for presidents themselves and the boards tasked with guiding institutions over time.

The closing plenary included talk about who is responsible for improving financial conditions at colleges when presidential turnover is high.

“I think when the presidents are churning, the board has a different set of responsibilities than it had when you used to have long-term presidents,” said Lawrence M. Schall, president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. Schall is an exception to the trend of shortening tenures, having been president of Oglethorpe since 2005 and planning to step down in June.

Not everyone would agree that boards should push for changes in times of presidential turnover. Some would prefer to see boards empower presidents to make changes themselves.

Separately, some argue against using finances as the only marker of institutional health.

“To me, it is the mission that drives the health of the organization,” said Mary Dana Hinton, president of the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota.

Missions vary widely by institution, as do conditions on the ground. It could be said that, as much as they share, small private colleges must overcome disconnects between each other in order to find strategies that will work for all of them.

As a result, meeting the challenges of the next decade is a difficult, complicated problem. Hinton may have summed it up best:

“I cannot think of a single question in higher ed right now for which there is one perfect answer.”

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