College presidents’ jobs are harder than ever. Presidents face funding cuts, changing attitudes about the value of academia, and a shrinking enrollment pipeline. College leaders have long wrestled with these challenges, but the changing higher ed landscape brings new urgency.
“It’s in many ways more of the same as well as a bunch of new complications,” Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education (ACE), told Hallie Busta at Education Dive in August.
For example, flagging enrollment is not a new challenge for college presidents. But the projected 15% drop in U.S. high school graduates between 2025 and 2029 has increased the pressure to find new student pipelines.
“It’s not eclipsing every other issue but it’s certainly becoming kind of an existential threat for a lot of institutions,” David Attis, managing director of strategic research at EAB, told Busta.
To prepare for a shrinking enrollment pipeline, colleges are reaching out to working adults, transfer students, and improving retention. “People are allocating more financial aid toward targeting retention in a way they might have heard of before but they weren’t actually doing that much about it,” says Attis.
Similarly, small colleges have long wrestled with the challenge to make higher ed accessible and affordable for students, argues Cleary University President Jayson Boyers in a separate article for Education Dive. But heightened competition for students and rising student loan debt means smaller colleges need to get creative to attract new students.
One way to address this challenge is to partner with local companies to expand access to higher ed and spur local economic growth, writes Boyers. For example, Cleary partners with TEAM Schostak, a regional restaurant company, to provide employees and their family members free tuition to the university’s programs.
“Scholarships to employees are nice, but they’re limited if they don’t cover all education costs. One or two classes does not a degree make,” writes Boyers. Partnerships between higher ed and industry can create a new stream of students and help workers advance their careers, he adds.
“Education needs to be accessible and it can be accessible through private partnerships between college and industry,” Boyers told Annalise Frank at Crain’s Detroit Business. “I believe these partnerships can be built up… so that employers can really attract and retain employees through giving them an education benefit that helps put them in a good position instead of burying them in debt.”
In addition to new complications in the higher ed environment, presidents also face challenges within their institutions.
Lack of funding and resistant faculty are among the top challenges facing college presidents today, according to a survey of 1,546 presidents by ACE.
According to the survey, the top five challenges facing college presidents are:
- Never enough money (chosen by 60.8% of respondents)
- Faculty resistant to change (45%)
- Lack of time to think (44.1%)
- Problems inherited from previous leadership (34.5%)
- Belief by others you are infinitely accessible (31.3%)
It’s not surprising, then, that presidents say their most time-consuming activities are those that revolve around campus funding: financial planning and fundraising.
Presidents believe their colleges will need to rely more on donors and students to balance the budget. When asked which funding sources are most likely to increase in the next five years, presidents chose revenue from private gifts, grants, and contracts (85%); tuition and fees (75%); and endowment income (64%).
And respondents don’t think the financial situation will improve anytime soon. When asked which challenges are likely to be of top concern to their successors, respondents’ top three responses all relate to finances: budget and financial management (68%), fundraising (47%), and enrollment management (38%).
When it comes to future strategic planning, these three thought patterns can trip up leaders. Here's how to challenge biases and overcome incremental thinking to better prepare your campus for the future.
Read more about the state of college presidents
The presidents led different kinds of institutions, but their answers all point in the same direction: student success.
The EAB Daily Briefing team sat down with EAB Executive Director Melanie Ho, who recently wrapped up a listening tour to understand the challenges facing presidents today.