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Chief academic officers believe that higher education faces serious concerns about academic rigor, grade inflation and student cheating – but that their own campuses are exempt. Those are among the findings of a new Inside Higher Ed survey of provosts and chief academic officers at American colleges and universities.

Respondents generally gave their colleges and universities strong grades when asked broad questions about academic quality. But they scored their institutions lower on specifics that are important to students and their families (preparing graduates for the job market), issues being pushed by some educators (preparing good citizens) and issues that greatly frustrate many students, parents and politicians (controlling the price of college).

Among other key findings:

  • Provosts believe their institutions have generally managed to protect academic quality during the economic downturn of the last few years.
  • The top challenge ahead for many provosts is improving retention and completion rates, but this is much more a priority in two sectors that have been the focus of criticism on this issue (community colleges and for-profit higher ed) than it is in other sectors.
  • A majority of provosts believe that junior faculty members today must meet tenure standards that have risen so rapidly that many of their senior faculty colleagues could not have met these requirements when they were up for tenure.
  • Very strong majorities of provosts applaud the "completion agenda" -- the push to get colleges and universities to increase efforts to retain and graduate students. But there are also minorities of provosts who -- while applauding the agenda overall -- fear that it is discouraging them from admitting "at risk" students, and who worry that too much attention has shifted to short-term programs.
  • Provosts across sectors do not think faculty unions have been helpful to campuses or to students.
  • When developing new academic programs, financial issues are paramount in considerations, a majority of provosts say.

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These results come from the first survey by Inside Higher Ed of provosts/chief academic officers. Provosts nationally were surveyed online in December. Responses were received from 1,081 provosts (or those holding equivalent titles, such as vice president for academic affairs, or academic dean at some smaller institutions). The provosts were granted complete anonymity so that they could answer frankly. However, their answers were coded by institution type, allowing for analysis of differences by sector in responses. The full survey and details about methodology may be found in our report of the survey here.

The results are being released this week as provosts and many other academic affairs leaders gather in Washington for the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, where the survey will be discussed at a session on Saturday. Previous Inside Higher Ed surveys in the last year have been conducted of college presidents, chief business officers, and chief admissions officers.

Rigor and Quality

About the Survey

The 2011-12 Inside Higher Ed 
Survey of Chief Academic Officers is the fourth  in a series of surveys of senior campus officials about key,
time-sensitive issues
in higher education.

Inside Higher Ed collaborated
on this project with Kenneth
C. Green, founding director
of the Campus Computing Project.

The Inside Higher Ed survey
of provosts and chief academic officers was made possible in part
by the generous financial
support of Datatel+SGHE, Epsilen, McGraw-Hill and Waypoint Outcomes.

Provosts, as the chief academic officers of their institutions, were a natural group to ask about issues of academic quality. The last year has seen considerable debate (much of it prompted by the book Academically Adrift) over the rigor of colleges, and much worry (prompted by the poor economy) over whether colleges are preparing students for employment.

It turns out that provosts believe the general criticism that academic rigor has fallen in higher education, but in what could be a Lake Wobegon effect, they don't think it's true at their institutions.

Just 16.5 percent of provosts, or one in six, said they believed academic rigor had fallen at their own institution, with relatively little variation among the sectors; 19.1 percent of academic officers at public master's institutions said rigor had declined, and just 12.9 percent at for-profit colleges. Seventy-two percent of provosts, meanwhile, agreed or strongly agreed that while their own institutions are doing well on issues of rigor and quality, these issues "pose real problems elsewhere in American higher education."

Just under 30 percent of provosts view grade inflation as a serious problem at their institutions, but more than double that -- just over 65 percent -- view it as a "serious problem" in higher education. Likewise, more than two-thirds of provosts believe that cheating has become a much worse problem in higher education in recent years, but fewer than a quarter saw it that way on their own campuses.

Asked about the effectiveness of their colleges in key areas related to undergraduate education, the provosts were generally upbeat in their overall analysis. Two-thirds of all chief academic officers rated their institutions a 6 or 7 (on a 7 point scale, with 7 being very effective). But on a key question for many students and parents (job preparation), the ratings were lower, with only 50 percent scoring their campuses 6 or 7. Only 43 percent saw their support services for undergraduates as being highly effective. Only 40 percent thought they were preparing students to be "active and engaged citizens." Confidence levels in assessing student outcomes and using data to inform decision-making were also low. And only 24.9 percent of provosts thought their institutions were highly effective when it came to controlling costs.

On most questions where the provosts didn't give their institutions high grades (6 or 7), the ratings were generally in the middle, with very few provosts saying that they were on the poor end of effectiveness. But on the question of controlling costs, just over 15 percent of all provosts gave their institutions marks of 1 or 2 on effectiveness. The sector that was most critical of itself: for-profit higher education, in which more than 22 percent of provosts said that they were ineffective at controlling costs.

In the questions about the quality of undergraduate education, provosts differed by sector. Provosts in for-profit higher education, for example, were much more confident than others in their institutions' skills at preparing students for jobs, offering student support services and using data to make decisions. Private institutions were more likely than publics (and much more likely than their for-profit colleagues) to believe that they were preparing students to be good citizens. While institutions across the board were not confident that they were controlling costs, the sector least likely to be confident was for-profit higher ed.

Provosts on the Effectiveness of Their Institutions
(Percentages giving a 6 or 7 on a 7-point scale where 7 is very effective)

TopicAllPublic DoctoralPublic Master'sPublic Bacc.Public 2-yearPrivate DoctoralPrivate Master'sPrivate Bacc.For-profit
Providing quality undergraduate education66.3%50.6%62.7%62.2%67.7%67.6%68.5%70.5%61.3%
Preparing students for jobs50.0%43.0%29.4%53.4%54.9%51.4%52.3%49.6%74.2%
Support services for undergraduates43.4%29.3%31.7%48.9%39.2%48.6%52.3%50.4%64.5%
Educating students as citizens40.2%38.0%35.7%51.5%29.1%56.8%50.3%51.3%25.8%
Assessing student outcomes32.9%27.8%31.0%44.4%34.1%32.4%28.9%30.4%54.8%
Using data to make decisions30.9%39.2%29.4%42.2%28.0%35.1%28.9%29.0%58.1%
Controlling costs24.9%21.5%23.8%28.9%31.7%13.5%18.1%21.9%16.1%

Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, and co-author of Academically Adrift, said that the results raise concerns. Based on the findings of his study (a follow-up to which he and his co-author are releasing today), he is inclined to believe that the provosts are correct in seeing serious problems with academic rigor (or lack thereof) in higher education as a whole. But he's skeptical that enough of them are being frank about their own institutions.

"The fact that they see these problems generally, but not on their own campuses, is very disturbing," he said. "You have to be willing to recognize and admit to the problems on your own campus to change institutional practices" that may limit rigor.

Some of the provosts' answers are very much in line with Arum's analysis. About two-thirds of provosts agree that students shy away from programs and courses they believe are difficult. More than 80 percent believe that rigor suffers because students don't spend enough non-class time studying.

Arum said he was struck that relatively few provosts (less than a third over all) feel their institutions are very effective in assessing student outcomes or using data to make decisions. If they aren't confident in those areas, he said, "they aren't going to know where there's a problem."

Tenure and Faculty Relations

On many campuses, provosts are key players in the tenure process, working with departments on tenure and promotion policies and making recommendations to presidents and boards of trustees on the approval or rejection of faculty recommendations.

None of the provosts from for-profit higher education reported having viable tenure systems. Within public and private nonprofit sectors, majorities of provosts saw the current generation of junior faculty members facing higher standards than previous generations did. Most provosts also saw tenure as viable for the future (although significant minorities of provosts disagreed). Asked whether they defer to faculty recommendations on tenure if they disagree with them, a majority said that they did not.

Provosts on Tenure Issues -- Percent Who Agree or Strongly Agree

Junior faculty face tenure standards many senior faculty couldn't have met when they were up for tenure.47.5%60.8%
Tenure is important and viable at my institution.69.0%73.0%
I generally defer to academic units on tenure recommendations, even if I disagree.27.8%34.1%

The responses to other questions suggest tensions between provosts and their faculties. Only 43 percent of all chief academic officers said that faculty members are "realistic about the financial challenges facing my institution." Public master's institution provosts were least likely to agree with that statement (only 31 percent did). For-profit-college CAOs were the most likely to do so (54.8 percent).

The provosts are skeptical about faculty unions. Asked if "in general, faculty unions have served to benefit both campuses and students," just over 15 percent said they did. Failing to view faculty unions positively extended across all sectors of higher education (including those where relatively few faculties are unionized).

Richard Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said he thought those numbers were in part a reflection of the economy. "I am sure that satisfaction with collective bargaining would be more favorable during periods of prosperity," he said. Tight budgets have left many campuses facing "very difficult and very sour" relations between faculty unions and administrators.

He also said that American higher education is hurt by the lack of "great national leaders" on both management and labor sides of the equation who could move beyond the "petty" issues that are divisive on so many campuses.

The Completion Agenda

One of the issues that has captured widespread attention in recent years is the "completion agenda," the push by state and federal officials, foundations and others to have colleges focus more than they have in the past on retention and completion, not just on providing student access to postsecondary education.

While the discussion has taken place across higher education, it has been particularly intense at community colleges. Further, quite aside from the completion agenda, critics of for-profit higher education have pointed to low graduation rates at some institutions.

The survey of chief academic officers found strong support for the completion agenda -- across all sectors. Asked to respond to the statement, "The 'completion agenda' has focused needed attention on retention and graduation rates in higher education," 89.7 percent of provosts agreed, with only modest differentiation among sectors.

Two criticisms of the completion agenda (even from some who support its objectives) are that it may discourage colleges from recruiting at-risk students, and that it may shift too much attention to short-term training (which can produce a student who "completed") and away from a broader education. This has been a particular concern at community colleges.

The survey found that only minorities of chief academic officers share these concerns. About 9 percent of provosts believe that the completion agenda is discouraging their institutions from enrolling at-risk students. But a much larger share of provosts -- 34.6 percent across all sectors -- believe that the completion agenda has shifted too much attention to short-term training. The share was slightly larger (37.5 percent) at community colleges.

Engaged With Engagement Surveys

Along with the completion agenda, outside observers of higher education have been asking for more evidence that time spent at college changes students in positive ways, giving them both knowledge and skills to succeed in life. Provosts were asked which nationally standardized tools they use for this purpose (with the ability to respond "Yes" to multiple tools if their campuses used more than one). By far, surveys of student engagement -- the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Community College Survey of Student Engagement -- enjoy the most widespread use on campuses.

Just over 59 percent of provosts said that their campus used one of those surveys. But NSSE and CCSSE dominate their respective markets for engagement surveys. Tests designed to measure gains in critical thinking and related skills in college students -- a hot field with three major competitors -- are being used (when the competitors are combined) by just under 59 percent of campuses.

Provosts in various sectors reported widely varying usage levels of key tests. Engagement surveys are being used in all sectors, but less so at community colleges and much less so at for-profit institutions.

Standardized Tools Used by Colleges, as Reported by Provosts

Test or SurveyAllPublic DoctoralPublic Master'sPublic Bacc.Community CollegePrivate DoctoralPrivate Master'sPrivate Bacc.For-Profit
National Survey of Student Engagement or Community College Survey of Student Engagement59.1%69.6%73.0%64.4%44.8%56.8%74.7%67.7%19.4%
ETS Major Field Tests23.9%11.4%46.8%35.6%4.0%10.8%39.3%41.3%3.2%
Collegiate Learning Assessment19.2%46.8%42.9%28.9%2.7%10.8%23.3%24.4%0.0%
Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency15.8%12.7%21.4%17.8%18.9%5.4%14.7%12.1%3.2%
ETS Proficiency Profile for General Education8.9%8.9%12.9%17.8%3.5%10.8%9.3%13.0%12.9%
College Senior Survey (UCLA)6.8%6.3%6.3%0.0%0.3%5.4%18.0%13.5%0.0%

Asked for the factors that went into the selections of these surveys and standardized assessments, the provosts generally cited a desire to improve academic programs. But the provosts were allowed to cite a variety of rationales. A majority also said that a major reason was to meet the requirements of accrediting agencies. Nearly two-thirds of chief academic officers also said that as accreditors push campuses to show that they are adding educational value for students, the agencies "have issued mandates without offering useful or viable methodologies to do so."

Managing Through Budget Cuts

The period since the fall of 2008, when the U.S. economy hit a severe downturn, has seen numerous rounds of budget cuts in higher education. Many faculty members -- throughout higher education -- maintain that the cuts have had a significant, negative impact on the quality of education delivered, either because of larger classes, canceled programs, the erosion of full-time faculty and advising positions, and so forth.

The provosts surveyed clearly spend a lot of time thinking about budget strategies. But largely, they do not appear to think that the cuts of recent years have hurt the quality of their programs. Only 8.7 percent of provosts said that the academic health of their institutions had declined in the last three years, and another 20.2 percent saw academic health as constant. The rest saw academic health improving. (Variation on the question by sector was modest.)

At the same time, the provosts appear to believe that further cuts would hurt the academic quality of their institutions. Only 21.6 percent agreed that they could make further cuts without hurting quality. (In this way the academic officers generally share the views of their bosses, presidents, and of chief business officers in Inside Higher Ed surveys last year.)

In questions about the kinds of budgets they have faced, public institutions generally reported larger cuts than did private institutions. (That is consistent with other reports, which have found that private institutions, focused on recruiting and retaining students, have tried hard not to cut programs that are visible to students.)

Another question asked the provosts what steps they would take if they didn't have to worry about offending various constituencies. Here, the top answers were generally consistent across sectors. Provosts would like to dismiss poorly performing faculty members, including tenured professors; to better align program budgets with institutional missions, to cut underperforming academic programs, and so forth.

But on some matters involving faculty members, public and private sector differences appear. Generally, public college provosts are much more likely than CAOs at private institutions to see it as desirable to increase the teaching loads of full-time faculty members. At doctoral institutions, 21.5 percent of public provosts believe this, compared to only 5.4 percent of private provosts. And while the numbers are small across sectors, public provosts are more likely than private provosts to want to increase the use of part-time faculty members. At public baccalaureate institutions, 15.6 percent of provosts would like to use this strategy. The figure is only 9.8 percent at private baccalaureate institutions.

On these faculty issues, however, one reason provosts may not favor further change is that they have already in the last few years increased class size and the reliance on part-timers.