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With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to rule (again) on the constitutionality of considering race in college admissions, higher education leaders have been in virtual lockstep -- through legal briefs filed by scores of groups and associations, newspaper op-eds by individual presidents, and the like -- in asserting that curtailing affirmative action would hurt the quality of the education students receive.

"The diversity we seek and the future of the nation do require that colleges and universities continue to be able to reach out and make a conscious effort to build healthy and diverse learning environments that are appropriate for their missions," the board of the American Council on Education, the country's main association of college presidents, asserted in a resolution related to the case last year. "The success of higher education and the strength of our democracy depend on it."

As unified as they have been in their public stances, college leaders do not hold uniformly positive views on affirmative action, especially when it comes to the question at the core of the Fisher v. Texas -- the case before the high court -- Inside Higher Ed's new Survey of College and University Presidents reveals. Only 70 percent of campus leaders agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that consideration of race in admissions has had a "mostly positive effect on higher education generally," and only 58 percent said the use of race in admissions has had "a mostly positive effect on education" at their institutions. (Some of the 42 percent who did not support the latter statement may work at nonselective institutions where race is not an issue in admissions.)

The presidents also expressed relative optimism about the likely outcome of the Fisher case, with a slim majority predicting that the court will impose merely “modest” limits on the use of race in admissions.  

About the Survey

The new Survey of College & University Presidents is Inside Higher Ed's third annual survey of campus chief executives. It is the first conducted in conjunction with researchers from Gallup.

n Thursday, March 20, Inside Higher Ed presented a webinar to discuss the results of the survey. Editor Doug Lederman was joined by Sanford Shugart, president of Valencia College, and S. Georgia Nugent, president of Kenyon College, to share and analyze the findings. To see a video of the webinar, click here.

The Inside Higher Ed survey of presidents was made possible in part by the generous support of Hobsons, Inceptia, Jenzabar, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, and TIAA-CREF.

The answers related to the Supreme Court case were among the findings of Inside Higher Ed's third annual survey of campus chief executives, which was conducted by Gallup and released today in advance of the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, in Washington.

A total of 841 college presidents, 27 percent of those invited to participate, provided their views, with hearty response from across higher education's sectors and segments. The presidents were granted complete anonymity so that they could answer frankly, 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 highlights of the survey:

  • Presidents remain unpersuaded by, if not skeptical of, MOOC mania. Only 14 percent of presidents strongly agree, and another 28 percent agree, that massive open online courses have “great potential to make a positive impact” on higher education; 31 percent disagree or strongly disagree, and the rest are neutral. But another higher ed innovation seems to have captured their attention: a full 60 percent of presidents agree or strongly agree that awarding academic credit based on students’ competency rather than seat time holds “great potential” for higher education.
  • The responses provide little evidence that the sky is falling on institutions, as several recent reports have suggested. Seven in 10 presidents said their institutions would face budget shortfalls and increased competition for students this year, in a climate of cutbacks of state and federal aid. But fewer than a third said they expected to take the sort of strong actions – cutting administrative positions, freezing salaries, changing faculty roles or teaching loads – that would suggest deep concern, let alone panic, about their institutions' financial futures.
  • In a year in which college leaders have seemed particularly vulnerable to political and trustee intervention -- see last summer’s drama at the University of Virginia and the continuing ferment at the University of Texas at Austin -- fewer than 8 in 10 presidents say they are confident that they will decide when they leave their jobs.
  • And perhaps fittingly for a survey released on the day the federal government failed to ward off widespread budget cuts, the presidents expect to receive more in the way of headaches than manna from Washington in the years immediately ahead. Two-thirds of presidents expect cuts to federal research and student aid funds, and 78 percent expect an increase in federal regulation of higher ed. In sum: Fewer than 1 percent of presidents strongly agree the federal government is “likely to provide solutions for key problems facing higher education in this country.”

Anxiety About Affirmative Action

It has probably been a decade -- since the last time the Supreme Court took up the question of the role of race and ethnicity in college admission, in 2003 -- that higher education had as much riding on a high court decision as it does in the outcome of Fisher v. Texas, a challenge to the University of Texas at Austin's need to consider race in admissions given the existence of a state plan in which students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes are automatically admitted to the public college of their choice. College leaders, along with many business, military and other groups, flooded the court with briefs last summer heralding the importance of diversity and the urging the court to preserve affirmative action.

Unpredictable as Supreme Court decisions can be, much of the commentary and reporting surrounding the Texas case has anticipated when the court rules later this year, its solid conservative majority will rule in a way that at least partially overturns the 2003 decision that reaffirmed colleges' right to consider race and ethnicity. The presidents seem hopeful, though, that the damage will be minimal: 51 percent say they believe the court will "impose modest limits on the consideration of race in the admissions process," 26 percent say the court will uphold the current law (and affirmative action), and just 23 percent say the justices will overturn the Michigan rulings and "impose major limits" on the use of race in admissions.



Inside Higher Ed also asked the presidents to speculate on what their institutions will do if the latter happens. If the court restricts consideration of race in admissions, colleges are likelier to increase their spending on financial aid and give more weight in the admissions process to candidates' socioeconomic backgrounds and first-generation-in-college status than to restrict the use of standardized tests or adopt policies -- like Texas' -- that automatically admit the top students from every high school in their states, the presidents said, as seen in the table below.

With the use of race in admissions under legal challenge, Inside Higher Ed also sought the presidents' views on the impact of such policies on their institutions and on academe. It's rare for higher education leaders to utter anything but full support for affirmative action in public -- but given an opportunity to express their perspectives anonymously, support was less than unanimous.

A full 70 percent of presidents surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with that statement that the consideration of race in admissions has had a "mostly positive effect on higher education generally." Only 11 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed, but another 19 percent were neutral. Support was strongest among public master's (81 percent) and public doctoral (80 percent) universities, and least strong, by far, among for-profit-college leaders (only 41 percent agreed or strongly agreed).



Fewer presidents agreed that race-conscious admissions has benefited their institutions; 58 percent of all presidents agreed or strongly agreed that "the consideration of race in the admissions process has had a mostly positive effect on education at my institution." That proportion was certainly brought down by the answers of presidents at nonselective institutions that do not consider race in admissions; only 44 percent of presidents at community colleges and at for-profit colleges alike answered that question affirmatively.

Those who watch the diversity debate in higher education had significantly varying readings of the presidents’ stated views on race-conscious admissions.

Roger Clegg, CEO of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which opposes racial preferences, said he was not surprised by the 70 percent figure, as support for the use of race in admissions still put college presidents well above Americans in general in their support for affirmative action in admissions.

“There are institutional pressures brought to bear on college presidents that push them to be more publicly supportive of racial preferences than in their heart of hearts they think is wise,” said Clegg. “In likelihood, the actual number is even lower than that, because even though they were being assured anonymity, on questions like this people are nervous.”

Theodore M. Shaw, a professor of professional practice in law at Columbia University Law School and a longtime lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, disagrees with Clegg on most things related to affirmative action -- but not as much on this point. 

“I’ve always thought that there are a significant portion of people in higher education who have some doubts” about consideration of race, either because they “still believe in the rumors of  inferiority of African-American students” or for other reasons, Shaw said. “It doesn’t entirely surprise me to see them reflect their ambivalence about diversity.”

Other supporters of affirmative action said they believed the question’s framing elicited less positive answers because it focused specifically on race rather than on the benefits of ensuring diversity generally. “I think there’s widespread and strong agreement within the higher ed community that consideration of a wide spectrum of qualities that students bring to a college or university is important, and that that broad spectrum includes race,” said Benjamin D. Reese Jr., vice president for institutional equity at Duke University and Duke University Health System and president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. “I think if you asked whether they supported a holistic assessment of candidates that included race, you’d get very different answers."

That, though, is not the question before the court, and in their significant support for race-based approaches, asserted Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, the presidents are “completely out of step both with where the court appears to be heading and where the American public is on this issue.” Kahlenberg believes that class-based affirmative action is fairer than are preferences based on race and ethnicity.

The Year of Competency?

The New York Times has deemed this the “year of the MOOC,” but judging by their answers to a series of questions about potential innovations in higher education, college presidents don’t necessarily see it that way.

Presented with five approaches that are getting significant attention (typically enthusiastic from those who think higher education must become more productive, and often skeptical from traditionalists or those wary of technology), the college leaders surveyed took a mostly cautious view about the likelihood that any of them have “great potential” to make a “positive impact on higher education.”

As seen in the chart below, presidents had significantly more favorable views about the potential upside of prior learning assessment, competency-based academic credit, and adaptive learning and testing than they did about MOOCs or the fifth option, the practice of outsourcing remedial or selected general education courses to outside providers.

At least 60 percent of all presidents agreed or strongly agreed that the first three approaches could greatly benefit higher education, while barely 4 in 10 felt that way about massive online courses. Private nonprofit college leaders viewed all of the potential innovations more skeptically than did officials at public and for-profit institutions.



Peter Stokes, executive director of postsecondary innovation at Northeastern University, said he was heartened by the rhetorical embrace, at least, of emergent approaches such as adaptive learning and competency-based education. Colleges still have a long way to go, though, he said, in turning that interest into practice.

“The degree of acceptance is positive, but we’re still in fairly early days in crossing the bridge” into embedding the practices into institutional behavior, Stokes said.

The Financial Future

In addition to topical issues such as affirmative action and higher education innovation, Inside Higher Ed’s annual survey is an opportunity to take the temperature on how presidents think their institutions are faring – especially given escalating predictions in some quarters that financial and technological forces put many institutions at risk. A report last summer by Bain & Co., for instance, captured a good bit of attention (and drew some scorn) for suggesting that as many as a third of America's colleges and universities were financially unsustainable.

You wouldn’t know it from the responses to Inside Higher Ed’s survey. Sure, there has been pain; more than 6 in 10 presidents say their institutions have suffered budget cuts -- higher for publics (79 percent), than private (39 percent) and for-profit leaders – and nearly 60 percent agree or strongly agree that the cuts have hurt the quality of campus operations. Many more say it has hurt morale, and an overwhelming majority do not agree that their institutions can absorb any more budget cuts without hurting quality.

The presidents also find plenty to be concerned about: asked to identify whether a set of issues would “challenge” their colleges in the next year, more than 60 percent of presidents agreed or strongly agreed that they expected to face budget shortfalls, increased competition for students, declines in state support, cuts in federal student aid, and increased remediation for underprepared students.

No shortage of problems, then.

But when asked what strategies they would adopt in response to those challenges, the top five answers mostly included strategic approaches (such as more academic and administrative cooperation with other institutions) rather than the sorts of sharp budget-cutting and dramatic changes in instructional delivery that would require them to go toe-to-toe with important constituents, such as increasing teaching loads (which could anger the faculty) or cutting student services (potentially prompting student protests). The table below lists the most-chosen and least-chosen options. (Note that most are also disinclined, or unwilling, to touch athletics.)

Most and Least Supported Strategies for the Year Ahead 
(% Agreeing or Strongly Agreeing Their Colleges
Will Use These Approaches)

 All InstitutionsPublicPrivateFor-Profit
Collaboration on academic programs71%74%69%56%
Collaboration on administrative services48%51%47%40%
Eliminating underperforming academic programs46%54%34%57%
Shifting to web-based instruction model41%47%29%55%
Shifting undergraduate teaching to part-time faculty32%40%20%35%
Least Supported Strategies
Outsourcing more academic programs8%8%6%11%
Cutting spending for athletics12%15%7%14%
Reducing student support services14%17%8%24%
Shifting faculty to multiyear contracts instead of tenure21%18%24%55%
Shifting more teaching to senior faculty25%22%25%45%

“These answers suggest to me a group of people in charge of institutions in a transition between what was and what is,” said John V. Lombardi, former president of the Louisiana State University System, among other institutions. “They are not sure how this game is going to play out. They’re coming out of a period of great stress, and many think they’re going to be okay.

“They recognize the threats, and they’re worried about it. But their job is to make what’s functioning now function, and they don’t believe what they’re seeing is catastrophic. They’re seeing progress.”

To the extent campus leaders are looking for answers, the survey makes clear they’re not expecting them to come from governments. The vast majority of presidents – 84 percent – say they expect flat or reduced state budgets for higher education in the coming years. Nearly three-quarters agree or strongly agree that the federal government will cut federal research spending and nearly two-thirds anticipate cutbacks in federal spending on student aid. And 78 percent say they expect the government ramp up its regulation of colleges. Not surprisingly, perhaps, for-profit-college leaders feel that way most strongly, with 96 percent agreeing.

Other Findings

Masters of their own destiny? In a year in which a seemingly larger number of university presidents have had serious scrapes with their boards or local politicians (some fatal to their jobs), Inside Higher Ed’s survey asked presidents whether they were confident that they would decide when to leave their jobs. Almost 8 in 10 (79 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that they would leave on their own terms, with a higher proportion among private college presidents and much lower rates among for-profit leaders.

Accreditation takes a beating. With higher education’s system of quality assurance facing significant government scrutiny – including a not-so-supportive shoutout from President Obama in his State of the Union address – accreditors might have hoped for some kind words from presidents.

They didn’t get them. Just half of presidents agreed that “regional accreditation makes a significant contribution to the quality of our institution’s academic programs,” with lowest ratings from doctoral institutions (public and private) and highest from for-profit colleges. And a full 60 percent of respondents disagreed with this statement, related to their institutions’ efforts to measure student learning: “Accrediting agencies have offered useful and viable methodologies to help higher education institutions respond to the value-added movement.”

Strengths and weaknesses. Asked to rate their institutions’ effectiveness in various areas, presidents gave themselves the highest marks on managing financial resources and providing a quality undergraduate education (each 72 percent very effective), developing community relationships (63 percent), and preparing students for the world of work (58 percent). They gave themselves the lowest scores for securing financial support from alumni (13 percent) and professional development of junior faculty (17 percent).   

No on non-need-based aid. There is widespread agreement that financial aid should, whenever possible, focus on the neediest students, and some private college leaders are promoting the idea of trying to get their colleagues to consider eliminating or at least reducing the amount of institutional aid they award based on academic and other merit regardless of students’ need.

The survey results indicate that the campaign faces an uphill climb. Just a quarter of presidents agreed or strongly agreed that they would eliminate non-need-based aid if their competitors also agreed to do so – compared to the 59 percent who disagreed (a full 30 percent strongly disagreed). Private college presidents (36 percent) were twice as likely to support the elimination of merit-based aid than were those at public institutions (16 percent).