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You don’t have to look far to find troubling signs for colleges and universities. In the last week, Mills College became the latest small private college to say it will close, COVID-19 continued to threaten completion of the spring semester in person at institutions such as Duke and Syracuse Universities, and several other four-year and two-year colleges announced significant layoffs or discontinued programs.

All of which makes the results of Inside Higher Ed’s 2021 Survey of College and University Presidents, published today, more than a little surprising, in that they find the country’s campus leaders more upbeat as they emerge from a year dominated by COVID-19 than they were before the pandemic hit.

Nearly eight in 10 college and university presidents say they are confident their institution will be financially stable over the next 10 years, and more than a quarter strongly agree. Presidents of public doctoral universities and of private four-year institutions agree in even greater numbers, but even three-quarters of two-year-college presidents agree. By comparison, just 57 percent of college presidents agreed with that statement in a survey conducted in early 2020, before the pandemic hit.

Campus leaders also take a very positive view of the impact the Biden administration is likely to have on their institutions, confidence that seems well placed so far as the federal government sends tens of billions of dollars in recovery aid their way.

More on the Survey

Inside Higher Ed’s 2021 Survey of College and University Presidents was conducted by Hanover Research for the first time this year. The survey included 433 presidents from public, private nonprofit and for-profit institutions. A copy of the report can be downloaded here.

Inside Higher Ed regularly surveys key higher ed professionals on a range of topics.

On Wednesday, April 21, Inside Higher Ed will present a free webcast to discuss the results of the survey. Please register here.

The Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Presidents was made possible in part with support from Amazon Web Services, EY Parthenon, Jenzabar, the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, and Ready Education.

And, perhaps emboldened by the quick pivots their institutions made last year as COVID-19 descended, they express significantly more confidence than they did pre-pandemic that their institutions have the right tools, processes and mind-sets to "respond quickly to needed changes," and they overwhelmingly agree that the pandemic has "created an opportunity for my institution to make other institutional changes we have been wanting to make anyway."

Not everything is rosy in the presidents’ eyes, though, and other findings in the survey suggest that for all of the rhetoric about the need for their campuses to change, presidents are thinking rather traditionally about how to address their problems. Consider:

  • When asked what actions they might take to respond to the financial constraints that many colleges are facing, presidents prioritize steps to increase revenue (cultivate new donor bases, lobby for more government support) over actions that would reduce expenditures or rethink how the campus operates (reducing the academic program portfolio or their campus’s physical footprint, reconsidering tenure policies).
  • Presidents continue to believe that race relations on their own campus are significantly better than in higher education as a whole: 63 percent say the racial climate on their own campus is excellent (7 percent) or good, while only 19 percent describe campus race relations nationally as good (67 percent fair and 14 percent poor). But if that disconnect still seems large, it has narrowed: in 2020, 77 percent of presidents said race relations on their own campus were excellent (14 percent) or good. Still, one president called the continued gap an "attribution error" with a "negative moral and practical consequence."
  • Campus leaders remain troubled by the public’s perceived lack of understanding of and confidence in higher education. Fewer than a quarter believe Americans have an accurate view of the purpose of higher education and of their sector of institution, and more than eight in 10 say the public thinks college is less affordable than it is.

Confidence Enhanced, Not Shaken

COVID-19 created enormous upheaval over the past year, and some of its effects are predictable, others less so. Inside Higher Ed’s annual survey of presidents, our 11th, is one key tool for understanding how leaders in higher education assess the impact the pandemic and the ensuing recession have had on their institutions and industry.

One barometer is the question we ask each year about their confidence in their institution’s financial stability, the closest analog in higher education to the consumer confidence surveys that economists track.

After a year in which hundreds of thousands of students opted not to enroll, colleges lost hundreds of millions of dollars in housing and other revenue and absorbed unexpected expenses to clean their campuses and equip them to deliver virtual learning, one might have expected presidents’ confidence to wane.

But almost across the board, college chief executives expressed faith in their institutions’ financial futures. Eighty-two percent strongly (38 percent) or somewhat agreed that they were confident their institution would be financially stable over five years, and 77 percent (28 percent strongly) expressed confidence over a decade.

In March 2020, 57 percent expressed confidence about their institution’s 10-year outlook. (Editors’ note: One caveat in assessing the data in this year’s survey: Inside Higher Ed changed survey partners this year, and researchers at our new partner, Hanover Research, caution that survey data between years is not directly comparable. Hanover warns that "statistically significant differences have not been calculated but a top-level review of the findings suggest some generalizable trends.")

Presidents of public doctoral universities and private four-year institutions of all kinds expressed the most confidence, while leaders of other public four-year institutions and community colleges lagged.

Across the board, college chiefs were more optimistic than they were a year ago, though. In March 2020, 23 percent of public doctoral university presidents strongly agreed that they were strongly confident their institution would be financially stable over a decade, as did 21 percent of private doctoral and master’s university leaders.

Those numbers almost doubled this year. The only sector that did not show a sizable uptick in the proportion of presidents strongly agreeing with that statement was private baccalaureate colleges: in 2020, 26 percent of presidents strongly expressed confidence in their institutional finances, compared to 27 percent this year. But last year only 33 percent somewhat agreed they were confident over a decade, and that proportion ballooned to 58 percent this year.

What explains that increased confidence, especially amid continuing economic turbulence and demographic data that do not bode well for the next decade? Is it that having endured a year from hell and emerging from it mostly intact, presidents are more confident their institutions can withstand anything thrown at them?

Rebecca S. Natow, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at Hofstra University and a higher education researcher, said via email that some of the presidents’ confidence may come from studying history: "Higher education institutions in general are actually quite resilient. They are much more likely to evolve and adjust to changing environments than they are to go out of business."

Confidence may vary somewhat based on the shape colleges were in pre-pandemic and how they were affected by COVID-19 and the recession, Natow said. Many private four-year colleges, particularly nonselective ones, faced financial and enrollment struggles before the pandemic, for instance. Community colleges enrollments were hit hardest by the pandemic, as the institutions disproportionately serve disadvantaged students likeliest to have lost jobs, to have children to care for, or to have faced housing or food insecurity that might have made college tuition a luxury they couldn’t afford.

Plus, she noted, this "comes at a time when many states are threatening to reduce funding for public higher education. This may explain why community college leaders are less likely to express confidence about their institutions’ financial stability than leaders of other types of institutions."

Another factor buoying presidents’ confidence right now, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education, is the way the Biden administration has prioritized colleges and universities in the most recent round of economic recovery aid. Congress’s third package of coronavirus relief aid, the first one crafted by the new administration, directs $40 billion to colleges and their students, more than the previous two packages combined.

"Congress has now provided about $78 billion to help institutions weather the storm," Hartle said. "That doesn’t guarantee their financial future, but it helps them get past the crisis." (See more on the presidents’ views about the Biden administration below.)

Impact of the Pandemic

While presidents feel pretty good about their institutions’ prospects looking down the road, they’re not sanguine about the continuing impact of the pandemic in the nearer term. Slightly more than half, 52 percent, describe themselves as extremely (3 percent), very (13 percent) or moderately concerned about the institution’s economic viability "while waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine to be widely distributed in 2021." Community college leaders are likeliest to say they are very concerned (17 percent), while public doctoral university presidents are likeliest to express at least moderate concern (69 percent).

What most concerns leaders about COVID-19 at this point? As was true in a series of pandemic-related surveys Inside Higher Ed conducted last summer, presidents place the mental health of students atop their list of current concerns, with 64 percent saying they are very concerned and 31 percent somewhat concerned. The mental health of employees is also a prominent worry, with 46 percent of campus leaders saying they are very concerned and 48 percent somewhat concerned.

The other concern that dominates the presidents’ thinking is about the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and recession on students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have been likelier than other students to have been knocked out of college (or to have chosen not to enroll at all) since the pandemic arrived. A full two-thirds of presidents (67 percent) say they are very concerned about the impact on disadvantaged students.

Financial and enrollment matters trouble them, too, as seen in the complete list below, but issues related to their people -- mental and physical health of students and employees -- were top of mind for campus leaders.

Kimberly A. Griffin, professor and associate dean of graduate studies and faculty affairs at the University of Maryland College Park’s College of Education, said she found it striking that campus leaders were more concerned about mental than physical health, in part because most institutions have more tools at their disposal to protect student and employee physical health than they do to ensure mental health.

Addressing the mental health issues, Griffin said, may require institutions to "really fundamentally rethink their policy and practice, their systems and structures" in ways that are difficult or uncomfortable.

"What I haven’t seen a lot of in higher ed is reaching out to folks we’re concerned about and saying, 'What is it you need? What would allow you to thrive in this new environment?'" Griffin said.

Some institutions have adapted their policies temporarily to relieve perceived pressure on faculty members and students, she said, by, say, extending tenure clocks for a year or adopting more flexible grading and assessment policies for student work.

But things aren’t going to snap right back to normal come fall, and some of the changes campuses have experienced in recent years -- increasing the expectations on instructors and staff members to focus on student retention, demanding that instructors create and offer virtual forms of their courses -- are likely to impose long-term if not permanent burdens on campus workers, at a time when many of them will continue to have additional caregiving demands at home.

"How do we rethink policy and promotion, to account for what can and can’t we reasonably do, and to think creatively around workload that free up time to take on new roles?" Griffin said. "How do we avoid burnout for students and professors? Maybe we should be rewriting, at least for the next several years, the policies we use to assess how we define excellence in tenure candidates, focused more on the impact of academic work than on quantity?"

Adaptation and Change Amid COVID-19

Presidents were presented with a series of questions about how their campuses had responded and might adapt to the pandemic and its aftermath.

Asked which most reflected their view of how their institution would respond, 44 percent of presidents said they hoped to transform the institution, while smaller numbers said they would reset for growth (35 percent) and "return to normal." Those proportions differed in interesting ways from the answers a smaller group of presidents gave in a survey by Inside Higher Ed and Hanover last summer, when 50 percent said they hoped to transform the institution and only 11 percent said they could "ride out the current difficulties and return more or less to normal operations within 12-18 months."

Large majorities of presidents -- about nine in 10 -- either strongly or somewhat agreed that their institutions would keep some of the COVID-19-related changes they’d made after the pandemic ends, that they "had been pushed to think outside the box in a way that will benefit the institution in the long run" and that they had been able to "implement some positive, long-lasting institutional changes during the pandemic." But whereas more than six in 10 strongly agreed with the first two statements, fewer -- 46 percent -- strongly agreed with the latter.

Along those same lines, more than eight in 10 presidents agreed (37 percent strongly) with the statement that "the pandemic, and subsequent necessary changes (e.g., adjusting to distance learning in the spring and fall), has created an opportunity to make other institutional changes we have been wanting to make anyway."

Community college leaders were, across the board, more likely than their peers in other sectors to see possibility for transformation in the current environment. More than half of them, 55 percent, compared to the average of 46 percent, strongly agreed that they were "able to make positive, long-lasting institutional changes during the pandemic." Nearly three-quarters (72 percent, compared to the average of 62 percent) strongly agreed that they expected to keep some of the COVID-19-related changes after the pandemic ends. And 45 percent strongly agreed the pandemic had created opportunities to make other needed changes.

Another set of questions and answers suggests that presidents believe their campuses may be more ready to consider and accept meaningful changes in how they operate.

These surveys have regularly asked presidents which campus constituents -- senior administrators, trustees and professors -- "understand the challenges confronting my institution and our need to adapt." Senior administrators always get the highest answers, followed by trustees, with faculty members trailing significantly; in 2020, those proportions were 88 percent, 64 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

The overall pattern held when presidents were surveyed early this year, with all of the numbers rising. And while a significant gap remains between how presidents view the three groups, the biggest change by far was in their assessment of the faculty view. For the first time since Inside Higher Ed began asking this question, a majority of presidents said their faculty members understood the situation confronting their institution (although only 10 percent agreed strongly).

Presidents were also significantly likelier this year than in 2020 to strongly or somewhat agree that their institutions have the "right mind-set" (78 percent, versus 54 percent in 2020) and the right "tools and processes" (68 percent, versus 45 percent in 2020) to respond quickly to needed changes. Once again, two-year institution presidents were likelier than their peers to agree with those statements, and presidents of public four-year colleges and universities less likely.

Experts who reviewed the survey results around campus change interpreted them somewhat differently.

Marjorie Hass, president of Rhodes College and incoming president of the Council of Independent Colleges, saw it as a problem that only 54 percent of faculty members are perceived to understand their colleges’ situations.

"This is a significant mismatch and shows the importance of regular ongoing dialogue between presidents and faculty about the college’s financial foundation," Hass said. "Institutions that already have a basis of trust and mutual understanding will be more agile and able to make transformational decisions with confidence and buy-in." (On a related note, a majority of presidents agreed that their institution needs a "shared governance process that allows for speedier decision making than we now have." Presidents of public doctoral universities were significantly likelier than leaders in other sectors to agree, at 75 percent.)

Mary Dana Hinton, president of Hollins University, said she hoped presidents recognized the need to make professors partners in transformation, rather than seeing them as obstacles to it. "Meaningful transformation [of this type] will depend upon leaders supporting their communities and creating a community of mutual care -- a community engaged in and excited about being transformed," she said via email.

Most observers were struck by the significant proportion of presidents talking about transformation and opportunities to make needed changes, but some, like Havidán Rodriguez, president of the State University of New York at Albany, said via email that it will be "interesting to carefully monitor how these feelings/sentiments are transformed into actual and concrete institutional change."

Changes on Campus and the Higher Ed Landscape

The presidents’ answers to a question about which actions they were most likely to take to respond to likely budgetary pressures in the coming months reinforce Rodriguez’s question. Presented with 14 possible options, campus leaders generally favored steps that would increase revenue rather than reduce expenses, and that would reinforce rather than reimagine their college’s business and operational models.

Five of the top six responses were actions that would try to produce more money, such as identifying new targets for fundraising or grant procurement or lobbying for more funds. The one exception was reassessing the mix of in-person versus virtual education they offer, which seems logical given the forced adaptation most campuses engaged in because of COVID-19 and their general sense that they and their faculties had pulled that off fairly successfully.

Presidents largely shunned actions often urged by pundits who believe higher education needs to consider more transformative change, such as reducing their institution’s physical footprint or reassessing their tenure policies.

Carrie Besnette Hauser, president of Colorado Mountain College, said the results left her thinking that presidents seem inclined to return to pre-COVID-19 operating assumptions. "I wonder how far back into habits we (as institutions and a sector) will slide because we (1) must; (2) innovated for a temporary fix; or (3) some combo of 1+2," she said via email.

Added Susan Baldridge, a professor at Middlebury College and co-author, with Robert Zemsky, of The College Stress Test, "A majority of presidents believe that the business models and operations of their school are in need of fundamental change. At the same time, many believe that they don’t have the structures and governance processes in place to make those changes. This signals what is likely to be a running theme throughout higher ed over the next decade -- the continued pressure for change when many don’t feel equipped to successfully navigate that change."

Presidents appear to be hearing mixed signals about what institutions want from them. More than eight in 10 agreed (32 percent strongly) that "fewer prospective students and parents are interested in paying the same price for virtual learning as for in-person learning," but far fewer, 47 percent, strongly or somewhat agreed that "COVID-19 will cause a shift in enrollment trends for years to come, with more prospective students favoring virtual instruction than before the pandemic." There was a major divide between public and private on the latter question, with 56 percent of public college presidents (and 69 percent of community college leaders) agreeing versus just 35 percent of private college chiefs.

Fewer than half of presidents, 43 percent, agreed that the pandemic would "cause a shift from more expensive colleges to more affordable ones." Two-thirds of community college leaders agreed, though.

Help From the Feds

Inside Higher Ed’s annual surveys of presidents typically assess how campus leaders perceive the state of federal policy toward their institutions. Given the Trump administration’s largely dismissive view of traditional higher education, and the generally supportive stance President Biden (and First Lady Jill Biden) took during the 2020 campaign, it’s not surprising that presidents are enthusiastic about what Washington might do for them.

Roughly three-quarters of presidents say Biden administration policies will have a positive effect on their institutions -- about 25 percent say a significantly positive effect. But there is a major divide between public and private nonprofit colleges on this question, with nearly 89 percent of public college leaders and 57 percent of private college presidents anticipating a positive impact.

That’s not surprising given that some of the policies Biden and other Democrats promoted during the campaign would benefit two- and four-year public institutions much more than private ones.

The survey asked presidents which of a series of policies they believed would most benefit them and their institutions and which the administration was most likely to pursue.

The answers reflected a few notable differences between sectors: not surprisingly, policies to provide free public college or free community college tuition were seen as more beneficial by public than private nonprofit institutions, while more presidents of private than public colleges said the doubling of Pell Grants would help their institution. (Community college and public doctoral university presidents were less likely to say doubling Pell Grants would help their institutions, though for different reasons: public doctoral universities typically enroll fewer Pell Grant-eligible students, and many community college students can already afford their direct college expenses at the current Pell Grant level, so an increase may not help two-year institutions very much.)

But perhaps more interesting were the rankings presidents gave to which policies they thought the administration would pursue and which policies the campus leaders wanted it to pursue because it would help their institutions.

Presidents believe the administration is most likely to pursue policies to reverse immigration policies enacted by the Trump administration (including by reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), undo the previous administration’s campus sexual assault policies and increase aid for historically Black and other minority-serving institutions (some of which the administration has done since the presidents were surveyed in January and February).

Nearly eight in 10 say the administration is very or somewhat likely to pursue free tuition at community colleges, but fewer than half (46 percent) say the same about free public college. Interestingly, private college presidents are more likely than their public college peers to believe the administration would pursue free public college, by 49 versus 44 percent.

Presidents’ answers about what policies would help their institution are far from shocking: they strongly favor policies that would put money in their pockets (directly through stimulus funds, or indirectly through bigger Pell Grants), while generally turning their noses up at policies that would increase scrutiny of the institutions, such as increased accountability for student debt, tougher regulation of colleges or more transparent student outcome data, all of which earned support from small fractions of presidents.

The Campus Racial Climate

In the year since Inside Higher Ed’s last annual survey of presidents, COVID-19 wasn’t the only major change to descend on American society. So too did last summer’s upheaval surrounding yet another round of tragic deaths of Black people at the hands of police officers, and the subsequent protests for racial justice that roiled cities and towns across the country and the world.

One of the most striking -- and in some cases ridiculed -- data points in Inside Higher Ed’s recent surveys were those showing college presidents to overwhelmingly believe both that the racial climate was a major problem on U.S. campuses generally but that their own campuses were, by and large, in pretty good shape on that front. In the 2020 survey, 77 percent of presidents said race relations on their own campuses were excellent (14 percent) or good (63 percent), down slightly from previous years, while 21 percent said fair and 2 percent poor. Nationally, 19 percent said race relations were good, 66 percent said fair and 15 percent poor.

How different would that look to presidents in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement?

Presidents’ assessment of the state of race relations on college campuses generally is unchanged from a year ago: About two in 10 (19 percent) say race relations are good, two-thirds (67 percent) say they are fair and 15 percent say they are poor.

But campus leaders are a little tougher in their assessments of their own campuses this time around, as seen below.

Presidents acknowledged that it was more important than ever for them to address issues of race on their campuses; 85 percent of respondents said it was more important (45 percent said much more important) to do so than in years past. They were divided, though, on whether it was easier or harder to address racial issues than in the past, with about 30 percent saying it was easier and 38 percent saying it was more difficult.

Griffin, the University of Maryland professor and associate dean, said that despite more presidents acknowledging imperfection in their campus racial climate, the sizable gap between perceptions of local versus national conditions remained.

"It makes you wonder what they’re using as evidence that you might have problems with race relations on campus," she said. "In the past it might have been, 'we’ve had protests,' but that isn’t really a thing right now" with many campuses either empty of students or seriously socially distanced.

Campuses might be conducting climate surveys and finding inequitable outcomes for underrepresented students or that minority students don’t feel as welcome on campus, but too often doing a climate survey "becomes the solution, rather than being an indicator of where you need to do the real work," Griffin said.

Hass, the Rhodes College president, described presidents’ tendency to believe their own institutions are doing better on race than their peers are as a "form of attribution error [that] while psychologically understandable, has a negative moral and practical consequence," reducing the "energy, effort and investment needed to make change."

Added Hinton, the president at Hollins, "I hope the belief reflected in this finding doesn’t serve to insulate presidents from or make them less attentive to the critically important diversity, equity and inclusion work we all need to do on our campuses. The work of inclusive excellence must be purposeful and intentional. We have to do this work not just in moments of crisis or in reaction to current events. The work of inclusion must be ongoing and sustained even, perhaps especially, when we think things are going well."

Higher Education’s Public Standing

The survey contained one last set of questions that, as in most recent years, shows college presidents to feel misunderstood by the American public -- although ever so slightly less so than previously.

Large majorities of presidents strongly or somewhat agreed that attention to student debt has led many prospective students and parents to think of college as less affordable than it is (86 percent), and that some of the amenities colleges have added to entice enrollments have contributed to the perception that the institutions have misplaced priorities (73 percent).

A slight minority of presidents (44 percent) said this year that racial protests had led prospective students to think of colleges as less welcoming of diverse populations than they are, down from 49 percent who said so in 2020.

And more presidents than last year -- though still less than a quarter -- agreed that "most Americans" have accurate views of the purpose of higher education (18 percent) and of their sector of higher education (25 percent). Last year those figures were 12 and 16 percent, respectively.

On the latter question, community college presidents were twice as likely as their peers in other sectors to feel understood by the public -- a number that could rise with a community college teacher in a prominent role in the White House.