Some Thoughts on Inside Higher Ed’s 2013 Survey of College and University Presidents

This article is part 1 of a 2 part series reviewing the results of Inside Higher Ed’s most recently-released surveys.  The first survey sought the perspective of college and university presidents regarding higher education.  The second survey asked similar questions to parents of students in grades 5 through 12.  While both offer insightful glimpses into the ways in which each group views the current trends in online education, there are notable differences in how respondents of the two surveys view the higher educational situation in America today.

Earlier this month, Inside Higher Ed released the results of its third annual survey of college and university presidents.  Asking respondents to weigh in on timely issues including the Supreme Court’s consideration of affirmative action in the admissions process, MOOCs, and even their own job security, the survey results provide a view of the world that college and university presidents manage. 

Most presidents (70 percent) indicate that they “agree or strongly agree” with the consideration of race in the admissions process.  They indicate that affirmative action in higher education has increased diversity on college campuses.  The American Council on Education (ACE) agrees with these presidents; in a resolution put forth by the group last year, the ACE asserts that “’The success of higher education and the strength of our democracy depend on it [diversity].’”

The survey addressed the introduction of MOOCs to colleges and universities.  A small percentage of respondents (only 14 percent) indicate that they “strongly agree” that MOOCs have “great potential to make a positive impact” on higher education.  Slightly more than 30 percent of college and university presidents responding indicated that they “disagree” or “strongly disagree” that MOOCs could have a positive impact on higher education.

Though MOOCs did not fare well in the survey, the idea of providing students with credit for prior learning did.  Some 60 percent of respondents indicate that they “agree” or “strongly agree” that students should be awarded credit for competency rather than base credits earned on “seat time.”  Prior learning assessments and awarding credit for prior learning (formal or informal) can help reduce a student’s course load and, ultimately, total tuition paid.  Historically, many colleges have offered students options for testing out of entry level language and math courses, but fewer provide academic credit for those who complete the tests satisfactorily.  More often than not, students achieve advance standing but must pay for a standard number of credits.  At APUS, many of our students receive credits from military and corporate training, prior learning portfolios, as well as AP and CLEP exams.

The survey also attempted to gauge the ways in which college and university presidents view their own positions.  Almost 80 percent of presidents indicated that they would leave their positions on their own terms.  At the same time, 60 percent indicated that their institutions would face significant budget shortfalls.  When asked to elaborate on the ways in which they would address those shortfalls, however, most offered suggestions that don’t appear to sharply reduce the overall budget load.  For example, 71 percent of respondents offered “collaboration on academic programs” as their first choice for addressing budget shortfalls as opposed to more dramatic options like increasing teaching loads for faculty, cutting student services, and shifting from tenure positions to multi-year contracts.  As Inside Higher Education editor Doug Lederman points out in his analysis, presidents seem reluctant to step on the toes of their major constituents, preferring instead to take strategic actions that may offer some (but not likely enough) budget relief. 

Not surprisingly, less than one percent of respondents express faith that the federal government would take actions that would provide meaningful solutions for the key problems facing higher education in America.  Some 75 percent agree that the federal government is more likely to make significant reductions in federal spending on student aid while 78 percent expect the government to increase regulation of colleges and universities.

In general, on many of the issues presented for consideration in the survey, it seems that college and university presidents still have an optimistic view of higher education today.  For example, very few expressed enough concern in the budget questions to indicate that they would take dramatic actions to make up expected shortfalls.  Despite the ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan last year and the enormous pressures associated with leading an educational institution in today’s tumultuous environment, a large majority of respondents maintained confidence in their own job security.  There also seemed to be reluctance on the part of respondents to explore some of the most recent innovations in higher education, including MOOCs.  While I concede that innovations like MOOCs need some refining, there could be great value in them if issues like credentialing and learning outcomes assessment are addressed.  Considering the current educational landscape (i.e. budget shortfalls, increasing tuitions, decreasing student aid, etc.), it is unrealistic to believe that the status quo can be maintained.  As we face another academic year with these challenges, perhaps we will see responses in the 2014 survey that seem more aligned with the current fiscal challenges.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence