Some Thoughts on What College Presidents Think

03/16/2015 08:29 am ET | Updated May 16, 2015

Inside Higher Education recently released a summary of its fifth annual survey of College and University Presidents, in advance of the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, the cross-sector presidential national higher education association. Gallup Education conducted the survey with responses from public, private, nonprofit and for-profit higher education institutions.

The results are interesting in part because IHE conducted the survey anonymously, although Gallup coded the individual responses by institutional type. They offer insight into what presidents are thinking, where they feel stress, and how they see themselves and their role in America.

Let's look at a few of these findings.

Significantly, the response to President Obama's free community college proposal offered the widest division by institutional type. Community college presidents (68 percent) favor the plan, while private (20 percent) and public four-year presidents (nearly 25 percent) are strongly opposed. While hardly unexpected, the response demonstrates a failure of Department of Education officials to see past policy to test the likely implications of its proposed actions.

If those presidents opposing the free community college plan see the proposal as a direct threat to the financial sustainability of their tuition-dependent institutions and a challenge to their ability to attract first-generation students, is it any wonder that they will oppose or wait out the proposal? Absent a thoughtful explanation from the Department of Education, why should they?

Further, is the government really prepared to shut down scores of four-year public and private colleges across the country whose leadership, faculty and staff are committed to an unsustainable financial model but historically serve first generation students without any alternative proposed by the government or other thought partners? Have the policy makers thought through the economic implications of their actions, whether in urban areas with large four-year college concentrations like Philadelphia or in rural districts across the country?

The tragedy is that free community college tuition may well be a good idea. But it should be developed with broad cross-sector support, appropriate bridge programs, and some sense of how higher education sectors relate to one another.

The second federal proposal to "rate" colleges and universities fared about the same. Only 12 percent of the presidents who responded graded the rating system higher than a "B," and almost none of them thought that it would describe their institution accurately. When asked what type of ratings might work best, the group split with some favoring input measurements like the number of first-generation students and the percentage of Pell grant recipients. Others looked to financial statistics like net price or outcomes including degree-completion and graduate employment rates.

In this area, American colleges and universities have some work to do. It is not possible to act like "Mikey the Cereal Kid" who is about to test the new cereal after his young friends refused to try it - "give it to Mikey, he hates everything." Higher education institutions have not looked comprehensively enough at how good research can build a stronger case for their efforts. In particular, they are weak at developing and agreeing about how outcomes can build support.

Consumers are voters. National political leaders looking at poll numbers understand their importance in elections. It's time to stem the endless media discussions on sticker price and post college employment by providing real metrics.

It's a little like trying to build support for the Boston 2024 Olympics. The importance to the region is not about whether an Olympics will occur. It's whether the Olympics can be used to open discussion on a regional strategic direction to produce an agreeable solution with a defined timeline. Does the effort produce a result that puts us in a better place?

We need a national conversation soon that looks to what might be possible and not just problematic.

Perhaps the most troubling statistic is the continued drop in how presidents believe that financial sustainability will play out over the next ten years. In this survey, only fifty-six percent of the presidents expressed their confidence about the sustainability of their institution's model over the next five years, with this number dropping to a dismal 39 percent over ten years.

To many of us, this statistic is better stated as a leadership question. If there is change - what Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston system, called "very serious disruption" to collegiate business models in the next decade - how can today's higher education leadership "kick the can down the road" in good conscience? Is this the same leadership that IHE suggests is reluctant to take up the mantle of Theodore Hesburgh and Clark Kerr?

Put more fundamentally, where is the support for thoughtful, vocal and progressive leadership backed by shared governance at home and given space by pundits, print and social media? It is reasonable to ask why would a president speak out in today's climate when the costs are so high and the benefits unclear?

From this perspective, it's not surprising that these results are in. It's just that they are so disappointing for American higher education.