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College Business Officers Have Good News, But We Don’t Believe It

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.

Much has been written and pondered aloud over the last several years on the topic of expertise. The general consensus is that a growing segment of the population – albeit still a notable minority – are simply unwilling to believe experts, those who have the best information and the best ability to understand what that information means.

An echo of that is swirling around higher education. Not in it, though that may be true as well, but around it, about it. That is that some of us are unwilling or unable to accept what the people with the best information and the most experience say. Some people just insist they know better than those whose job it is to literally know. In addition to being antithetical to the very premise of education, it’s odd.

The University Of Michigan North Campus signage at the University Of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan on July 30, 2019. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

This trend has shown up recently in the reaction to this survey of college business officers. The issue isn’t what the survey says, what chief business officers said – that is pretty clear. They are generally pretty positive about the stability and near futures of their institutions. The issue is that, for some reason, so many simply don’t want to believe it.

The survey was conducted by an industry publication and mostly reported on there. The lynchpin news coverage of the survey starts with all the reasons these business officers would be worried – “college and university financial leaders would seem to have plenty to worry about” it says. There’s the declining enrollments, which is true but probably misunderstood. Inflation. The stock market and so on.

But when they asked the business officers, the people who have the most and best information about their schools – “they are on balance upbeat about their institutions’ financial stability and largely disinclined to see the need for dramatic changes in how they operate,” the news coverage of the survey said.

And they are.

From the survey: “About two-thirds of business officers (65 percent) agree that their institution will be financially stable over the next decade.” And that, “Sixty-four percent of business officers say their institution is in better shape than it was in 2019, before the pandemic hit…” And that, “About three-quarters of business officers said their institution was either very (54 percent) or somewhat (21 percent) likely to have finished the 2021–22 fiscal year with a positive operating margin.” And, “Seventy percent of business leaders agreed with the statement, ‘I am confident my institution will be financially stable over the next five years.’”

That ought to be good news. If you care about our colleges and the young people they are educating, it ought to be a giant sigh of relief that the senior business officers at our nation’s schools feel good about their futures.

To be clear, the confidence and positive outlook is down from last year, probably because federal recovery and stimulus funds are now either gone or down significantly. And because enrollment has not rebounded yet, though it shows signs of doing so. But still – 65%, 64%, 75%, 70% – those are good numbers. That should be the headline, right?

Keep in mind that the people talking are the people who would know. They are the experts. They unquestionably know more about the future and the positioning of their institutions than others do – than I do, for example. When 75% of them say their ledger sheets are going to finish with black ink instead of red, I believe them. I don’t know why they’d lie about that.

And yet there’s no need to look any further than that news coverage of the survey itself to find the disbelief.

Immediately after sharing the survey findings, an ensemble of outside “experts” weighed in to say how wrong those with the actual balance sheets are. One said the business leaders, “may be wearing rose-colored glasses.” Another said, “I don’t get the overarching optimism.”

Let me say here that I’m not sure it’s required that someone “get it.” It is probably good enough that they accept the views of the people who know things. If an airline pilot announces that she’s confident the flight will be smooth, I don’t look out the window and say, “I don’t get.” I trust that she has better instruments and more experience than I do and that there is no reason for her to mislead me.

That is not to say that the business leaders in this survey did not see dangers ahead. They clearly do, and said so. And there are dangers ahead. There usually are.

Still, the survey results literally are that, “Business officers pretty unanimously agreed that their institutions are in better shape than they were pre-pandemic, with a majority from every sector concurring.” Being in better shape than before the pandemic – why, that’s great.

Yet the news story says that, “Most of the higher education finance experts who reviewed the survey data believe that many colleges will need to think and behave differently if they are to thrive in an era of constrained resources.”

So, the actual experts, the ones with the actual information, by margins of 65%, 64%, 75%, 70% and more, say things are stable, positive and better, with good prospects. Yet some other “experts” with less information and/or worse information say those people “need to think and behave differently.” Because, we must assume, those with less information must know better.

That’s bizarre.

It’s odd to have people say the real experts don’t get it and need to change. It’s odd to listen to those voices, to feature them so prominently – especially in what is a very easy to understand development.

Featuring skeptics who pretend to know better than the experts is doubly odd and equally unsettling when it’s happening in or about education itself. If education people can’t hear what education’s own, actual experts have to say – I don’t know. It does not feel good.

In all cases, maybe those of who care about our colleges and universities would be better off just taking the insights of our genuine experts for what they say instead of second-guessing it. They’re saying they’re in a better place financially than they were, that they are optimistic. That ought to be more than good, it ought to be more than good enough.

Originally posted on Forbes on July 17, 2022.