What do campus trustees think about the future of higher education?

One of the ways I analyze the future of higher education is by looking into attitudes studies.  These projects investigate what certain key populations think about academia.   We can consider them a kind of higher education sociology, or a glimpse into this sector’s political economy.  They are essential for grasping how colleges and universities change.

For example, Ithaka S&R produces excellent attitudes reports.  Their work on faculty attitudes towards higher ed (2015) is rich and illuminating.  Their recent study (2017) on academic leaders’ considerations was similarly useful, as you can see from our Future Trends Forum discussion about the document:

This is why last month’s survey of college and university trustees is on my radar in today’s post.  The Association of Governing Boards (AGB) hired Gallup to see what trustees think about higher education.  The results, called the Trustee Index, shed light on every aspect of academia.  And these are obviously important people, given their role in shaping the direction of campuses.

I recommend reading the whole thing, but will identify what I think of as the most interesting points for the future of education.

To begin with, most trustees see higher education problems in economic terms.  None of their concerns are surprises, but they do represent powerful policy directions.

Price is the biggie:

Regardless of institution type, the price of higher education for students and their families remains as the top concern for board members — private, for-profit institutions (74%), independent, nonprofit institutions (69%) and public institutions (56%).


When asked to select their top three concerns about the future of higher education in the U.S., 68% of board members cite the price of higher education for students and their families, 41% cite student debt, 33% cite the ability of higher education to respond to changing student and employer needs, and 33% cite the business models of higher education institutions…

Again, these aren’t surprises, but they are, and are likely to remain, administrative priorities.  If trustees are worried both about price and debt, they are probably going to push hard on cost cutting and new revenue models – and that impacts every aspect of colleges.

This attitude is also going to drive a closer relationship with business for many: “only 36% of board members agree or strongly agree that colleges and universities in the U.S. have a strong understanding of what employers look for in job candidates.”

A second point concerns the value of college.  Intriguingly, the stewards of academia are not on board with the higher education for everyone idea.

I’m not sure how this is going to play out in practical terms.  Will the majority of trustees back away from expanding enrollment at their institutions?  Will they support industry apprenticeships?

Third, trustees value their institutions for strongly non-economic reasons.  Look carefully at this set of responses to a question about the role of academia:

No answer achieves a majority.  The winner by plurality is about meaning, not jobs.  Jobs only get 22% of trustees here.  This contradicts the other results, and might give faculty and administrators room to expand conversations.

I wonder if the second most popular response – preparation for engaged citizenship – would have been so high before Trump.

Note that research and innovation are way, way down on the list.

Fourth, support for liberal education is very strong among trustees, and they recognize that such support is lacking in the general population.

Fifth, trustees tend to see their institutions as needing to change, but often are unable to do so.  Reasons won’t surprise any observer, as they lead off with faculty attitudes, and also administrators’:

This can be a recipe for increased friction between trustees and the people whose institutions they see themselves as guiding.  As with other issues raised in the Index, these aren’t new.  Nonetheless, they remain useful as ways of understanding campus politics.  They also point to how the future of education can play out: an increasing demand from trustees for institutional transformation.

Note how governmental regulations play a tiny role in this population’s sense of college and university change.

Overall, the AGB Index portrays a campus leadership that admires their institutions, yet sees them as needing an overhaul.  The variety of problems and topics – from industrial engagement to meaningful life – sketch the terrain of how discussions and politics may proceed.

(thanks to Matthew Henry for drawing this report to my attention!)

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