The 2014 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Business Officers was just released. You can read about it here (and also find a link to the full report).
As with most of these kinds of surveys, there really aren’t any surprises. There is merely confirmation of what we already knew — in this case, that college and university administrators who are responsible for the financial affairs of the institution are fully aware of the financial crisis enveloping the industry.
The vast majority of the institutions’ chief financial officers concede higher ed is in the midst of a financial crisis. And the majority isn’t confident of their institutions’ ability to whether the crisis with their current financial model.
Yet they’re not doing much about it. Sure, they’re tinkering around the edges, saving a few bucks here and there. But few are seriously considering a revised model, and few are willing to take the significant cost-saving measures necessary to change the equation. (By the way, I can’t blame them, given the lack of support and mean-spirited resistance such measures would surely illicit at many institutions.)
It’s one of the reasons I’m not bullish on the prospects of many institutions to reform themselves. There is simply too much resistance and too little awareness of the reality on the ground and what it means for the long-term prospects of the institutions.
Indeed, most chief financial officers correctly observe that the majority of faculty members aren’t realistic about the financial challenges colleges face. Personally, I think administrators and boards have done a poor job over the years of educating faculty and keeping them fully informed of the issues. But that’s not the full story.
When I was a president of a college, I was incredibly transparent and eager to share all kinds of data and information with the faculty. Yet I found that many weren’t interested.
The power of inertia and the status quo is unbelievably strong on most college campuses. Sadly, this power will be the cause of the undoing of many of these institutions.
It takes vision and courage to change course. Both are in short supply in the world of higher ed.
Of course, many chief financial officers continue to think they can save their institutions by recruiting more students. I liked the comment of Kent Chabotar, retired president of Guilford College, who was quoted by Inside Higher Ed as saying, “It almost feels like there’s 4,500 Persians chasing 300 Spartans called full-pay students — good luck.”
Fighting for a larger slice of the same sized pie is a common characteristic of an industry in decline.
Again, there is nothing new to be learned by reading this survey report; it’s simply additional confirmation of what we already knew, which is unfortunate. It would be nice to see more evidence of a willingness to adapt and evolve.
Many of the institutions that are in a downward slide could reverse course and improve their prospects if they could muster the courage to fight for what they know must be done. But perhaps they’re right. Perhaps it isn’t worth their trouble. Perhaps it isn’t worth the personal risks. Perhaps they can individually hang on long enough and won’t be drowned by the tidal wave that’s hitting the sector and many of their institutions.
Meanwhile, the strong will get stronger and the gap between the haves and have-nots will continue to widen. And the kids who can’t afford the wealthy private colleges or high-priced flagship universities will bear the brunt of these decisions. As will the multitude of faculty and staff who will see their prospects diminish and their incomes stagnate.