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College and university trustees widely agree that the public’s perception of higher education has been eroding and that higher education’s business model needs to change -- but many see significant barriers to putting changes in place.

More than half of trustees, 57 percent, agreed that the general public perception of higher education in the United States has declined in the last decade, according to a survey conducted for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and released today. Forty-one percent of respondents agreed with the statements. Another 16 percent agreed strongly.

Nearly all respondents, 92 percent, said college and university business models need to change. More than half, 58 percent, called for moderate changes, and 34 percent said the business model should change drastically. Many trustees, 57 percent, said most colleges are able to change their business models. But only 38 percent said most colleges are willing to change.

Asked about the biggest barrier to changing higher education’s business model, 28 percent of respondents pointed to a lack of support from faculty members. The lack of faculty support was by far the most popular answer, followed by a lack of confidence among institutional leaders in making changes, cited by 19 percent of trustees, and a lack of consensus among leaders, cited by 16 percent.

The survey also asked trustees about their top three concerns for higher education’s future. More than two-thirds, 68 percent, pointed to the price of higher education for students and families. Other top concerns included student debt, named by 41 percent of trustees; the ability of higher education to respond to changing student and employer needs, named by 33 percent; and higher education institutions’ business model, named by 33 percent.

Just 22 percent of trustees said preparing graduates for the work force is the most important role higher education fills. A large majority agreed with the statement that liberal arts education should be included in all undergraduate programs -- 56 percent strongly agreed, and 29 percent agreed. Yet nearly all trustees, 92 percent, said the general public does not understand the notion of a liberal arts education very well.

AGB is in the middle of an effort to involve college and university trustees in public discussion about the value proposition of higher education. Where public policy is concerned, at least, there may be work to be done. Only 23 percent of surveyed trustees said they had personally contacted a member of Congress about a higher ed policy issue in the last year.

The new polling is the first in a set of three surveys AGB plans in order to gauge trustee perspectives. It includes responses from about 1,400 AGB members who participated in online surveys between March 20 and April 18.

“The story that they share in their responses is both candid and straightforward, but also, in some respects, it’s somewhat sobering,” said Rick Legon, AGB president, during a conference call to discuss the findings.