Inside Higher Ed has released its survey of College and University Officers. The news is largely not good for those who long for an early return to health for colleges and universities..
The headline is that eighteen percent of those surveyed agree that “My institution is unlikely to shut down in the near term, but may have to in the coming decades.” In itself, that may not be big news. Inside Higher Ed hasn’t asked the same question before, so we don’t know how this year compares to prior ones. And “may have to” is a permissive standard. Even so, the following number startling.
At private institutions that offer only bachelor degrees, 38% of business officers surveyed said their institutions, though safe in the near term, may have to shut down in the coming decades. The number is startling in part because the present difficulties of our colleges and universities have something to do with the recent economic crisis and something to do with a decline in the number of high school graduates in many parts of the country. Neither trend is permanent.
But many college and university financial officers, who are certainly in a position to know, evidently think that the challenges to their own institutions are here to stay. More broadly, 56% think that media descriptions of a financial “crisis” in higher education are accurate. How often do people who know a business think that media reports about it are accurate?
Equally troubling, Jane Wellman, who is no alarmist, and whose work with the Delta Cost Project is very highly regarded, thinks that colleges and universities are by and large flailing. Wellman, now with the College Futures Foundation says, “all of the signals are that this is a sector that is in trouble. Yet the kind of things that would better position institutions for the long haul probably aren’t happening.”
Indeed, the survey indicates that the primary strategy colleges and universities are following is to try to increase enrollment. That’s understandable, since increasing enrollment and revenue is necessary for some institutions even to run in place, let alone improve. But in a field in which prospective students who are willing and able to pay are increasingly scarce, only so many colleges and universities can win at that game.