5 biggest challenges facing college presidents

Lack of funding and time are key themes in a survey of 1,546 presidents by the American Council on Education (ACE).

To conduct the survey, ACE researchers sent an online questionnaire to thousands of presidents and CEOs (of for-profit institutions) in summer 2016. The survey is part of ACE's broader research into the demographics and opinions of college presidents. ACE sent its first iteration of the survey in 1986 and has published regular follow-up reports since then.

According to the survey, the top five challenges facing college presidents are:

  1. Never enough money (chosen by 60.8% of respondents)
  2. Faculty resistant to change (45%)
  3. Lack of time to think (44.1%)
  4. Problems inherited from previous leadership (34.5%)
  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.

Respondents are not optimistic that the funding situation will improve. Nearly half (41%) say they expect state funding to decrease over the next five years, and nearly a third (28%) said they expect the same of federal funding.

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Instead, 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 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%).

The authors of the report argue that the job of a higher education president has grown more challenging since their previous report in 2011. They note that colleges and universities now face more scrutiny from the government as well as students and families.

While those external constituents measure the value of a degree in terms of jobs and salary, "that perspective is still anathema to many campus stakeholders," the authors write. It's up to the institution president to negotiate between internal and external stakeholders with strong communication and change management skills.

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The authors express concern that respondents said they lack of time for reflection, noting that "presidents need the space to think and reflect" if they are to develop creative strategies for addressing the range of threats facing their institutions (ACE site, accessed 1/25).

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