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College And University Presidents Are Very Optimistic, Maybe We Should Listen

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.

College and university Presidents are strongly optimistic about the futures of their institutions.

That was the headline finding of the annual survey of the scholastic leaders, completed and published by Inside Higher Ed. And given what we’re supposed to believe about the status and outlook of higher education – that a complete collapse is imminent – the sunny views of campus chiefs is remarkable if not stunning.

Asked to agree or disagree with the sentence, “I am confident my institution will be financially stable over the next five years,” 83% of college Presidents either somewhat agreed or strongly agreed. The percentage was steady across public and private, non-profit schools. Only 12% disagreed.

Stretching the confidence timeline out a decade, the numbers dissipated only slightly with a robust 79% of Presidents expressing agreement. Out ten years, the disagreement or lack of confidence in financial stability was essentially unchanged at 11%.

Asked whether their institutions were “in better financial shape” now as opposed to before the pandemic, a solid majority of 55% said their schools were better now.

Students on Libe Slope at the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, US, on Tuesday, April 11, 2023. US college costs just keep climbing and the increase is pushing the annual price for the upcoming academic year at Ivy League schools toward yet another hold-on-to-your-mortarboard mark. Photographer: Bing Guan/Bloomberg.

The survey sample of for-profit colleges was not large enough to be statistically valid, so it was not calculated as a cohort. Though there are many reasons to think that had they been counted, their aggregate outlooks would have been far less pleasant. If for-profit leaders were counted in the overall numbers, which is not clear from the survey, the outlooks of the mission-driven Presidents are likely even more positive than the overall numbers indicate.

What’s really remarkable about these results is not just the uniformity of confidence, it’s that observers and pundits simply don’t believe them. Some of the press coverage of the survey quoted supposed experts saying these Presidents, the people who see the numbers and know the plans, are wrong. Or in denial. Or, it was suggested, that they are simply cheerleaders for their schools – putting on a positive face while confronted with grim realities they’d prefer to conceal or gloss over.

There may be some of that. Cheerleading is definitely in the job description.

Still, I’m more inclined to believe what the Presidents had to say. And not just because they are the people who know what’s actually happening at their schools. I’m buying their confidence and optimism because it matches up with a survey of college CFOs from January.

That survey, from an entirely different outfit, found that 89% of the leading finance officers at colleges and universities were, “confident their institutions will be financially stable over the next five years.” Eighty-nine percent.

I’m not aware that cheerleading is in the job requirements for many Chief Financial Officers.

Maybe – just maybe – the experts are actually right about this one. It is possible that our higher education institutions are, by and large, financially healthy. And if they are, maybe – just maybe – we should celebrate that. Healthy colleges that are operational, educating minds, stoking the fires of passion, innovating and fueling economies are good. Colleges return enormous and diverse value for all of us.

Further down in the new survey of Presidents is the finding that a plurality of them (44%) think President Biden’s plans to forgive some student debt was “the right amount” of relief. Though a sizeable 37% of Presidents think no debt should have been forgiven at all. Just 16% said forgiveness plans should have been more generous.

Only about one in five of the Presidents (21%) agreed that forgiving student debt will make college more affordable while 59% said forgiving debt won’t do that. Those 59% are right, by the way. Forgiving existing debt won’t do anything to reduce future costs.

On costs, our Presidents generally agree that “public doubts about the affordability of higher education are justified.” Fifty-nine percent agreed, though only 15% strongly so. An even third disagreed.

There was more unanimity on the question of whether “Public doubts about the value of higher education are justified.” By more than two to one, college Presidents think those doubts are not justified – 65% to 30%. Forty-two percent “strongly disagree.”

Here, there probably is some expected cheerleading going on. So much so that it’s fair to wonder what the 30% in that response line were, or are, thinking. Leading an institution of higher education while agreeing with doubts about the value you provide is quite a commute. Like an oil company executive who disavows evolution.

Anyway, cheerleading aside, the 65% are right here too. With very few and highly specific exceptions, doubts about the value of college are not justified. I’ll go further. They are invented. Loudly and frequently repeated, but invented. Even if you narrow your gaze to just the dollars, college remains an amazing investment, on average returning far more in earnings that it costs.

And if our college Presidents are right about the relationship between debt and cost and right about doubting the value of college, maybe we should open our ears to what they have to say about the health of their own institutions. Just maybe.

Originally posted on Forbes on May 10 2023.