The Evolving Nature of the College Presidency

December 4, 2017

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By Jonathan Gagliardi

While rewarding, being a college president has always been hard work. Today, environmental and industry pressures have converged to make leading an institution more complex than ever before.

Students continue to diversify as the number of post-traditional learners grows to encompass more than half of all undergraduates. Tuition continues to rise at a rate outpacing inflation. For those without a college degree, the economy has become more volatile. Technology has broken the monopoly on knowledge acquisition and learning once enjoyed by colleges and universities. Indeed, the higher education business model has begun to buckle in light of these social, political, economic, and technological shifts. And modern presidents have the difficult task of fixing it, making the need to better understand the college presidency critical.

ACPS-2017-now-availableAgainst this backdrop, ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy (CPRS), in partnership with the TIAA Institute, recently published the American College President Study 2017 (ACPS). The longest-standing, most comprehensive study of the presidency and the higher education leadership pipeline, the eighth edition of the ACPS studied the responses of 1,546 college and university presidents. Key topics ranged from the demographic profile of college and university presidents to their duties and responsibilities, perspectives on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and their thoughts on the future.

Profile of the Presidency

The profile of the typical college president has changed some in the 30 years since the first publication of the ACPS, but in reality it has remained much as it was in the 1980s. The typical college president is a 62-year-old white male with a Ph.D. or Ed.D. in education. In 2016, 70 percent of presidents were men, and 83 percent of presidents were white. Since 1986, the percentage of women presidents has increased from 10 percent to 30 percent, and the percentage of non-white presidents increased from eight percent to 17 percent. Only five percent of presidents are women of color. This will become increasingly problematic in future years as the college-going population continues to diversify. Without greater intentionality on the part of the entire higher education community, the demographics of the presidency will continue to lag behind broader demographic trends.

In 2016, women and people of color made up the largest share of college and university presidents in the history of the ACPS. Still, these gains varied by institutional type. For example, associate colleges had the highest concentration of presidents who were women and people of color (36 percent and 20 percent, respectively). Doctorate-granting universities were least likely to be led by women (22 percent), while bachelor’s and master’s colleges were the least likely to be led by people of color (15 percent each). These patterns suggest that presidential opportunities are stratified, to a degree, based on gender and race/ethnicity.

Experience also mattered. More than a quarter (26 percent) of presidents had been a president before. Presidents were also a full decade older (62) in 2016 than they were in 1986, and the percent of presidents age 70 years or older doubled from 5 percent to 11 percent between 2011 and 2016. Presidents were also more likely to come from within higher education than in previous years. The percentage of presidents whose immediate prior position was in higher education rose from 80 percent in 2011 to 85 percent in 2016, while those coming directly from outside higher education decreased from 20 percent to 15 percent between 2011 and 2016. Campuses seem to be prioritizing more seasoned leaders who have greater familiarity with higher education and the presidency. Still, choosing older, more experienced presidents does come with a major drawback: It skews the pool of qualified candidates towards less diverse populations. As a result, institutions are often left to make a difficult choice between diversity and experience. That should not be a zero-sum game.   

The Role of Leadership in the 21st Century

Contemporary presidents are often charged with creating more dynamic and resilient institutions, but many obstacles stand in the way of doing so: namely, money, time, and culture. Presidents identified a lack of money (61 percent), faculty resistance to change (45 percent), and problems inherited from previous leadership (44 percent) as the top three challenges they faced. Large portions of presidents believe that state (41 percent) and federal support (28 percent) will decrease in the near term. Coupled together, these challenges and expectations about once reliable funding sources influence presidential activity. They identified budget and financial management (65 percent), fundraising (58 percent), and managing a senior-level team (42 percent) as the matters that take up most of their time.

For many presidents, improving student outcomes and closing attainment gaps stand as a bulwark against a challenging environment. They see performance indicators related to student progression and completion and improving outcomes for students of color as having greater legitimacy than typical markers of status and prestige such as competitive/external research grants and U.S. News and World Report’s rankings. This focus on equitable access and outcomes will only grow in the future as the student body continues to diversify, and funding, whether from the student or the state, becomes more results-driven. As such, presidents identified matters related to budget and financial management (68 percent), fundraising (47 percent), enrollment management (38 percent), diversity, equity, and inclusion (30 percent), and assessment of student learning (30 percent) as areas that will be most important to their successors. Savvy use of data with a focus on improving student outcomes and closing attainment gaps will go a long way to ensuring student success and sustainability.

Still, presidents as a whole have a long way to go in order to improve how they use data. Even though 30 percent of presidents selected the assessment of learning outcomes as an area of future importance, that means that 70 percent did not. Moreover, only 12 percent identified the use of IR/evidence to inform decision making as an area of future importance for their successors. This suggests a disconnect between the desire to use data and analytics to boost performance and the prioritization of the kinds of analyses and functions that would actually execute that. Ultimately, that will need to change if institutions are to vary and improve their approaches to teaching, learning, and advising. College and university presidents will have to intentionally nurture the diffusion of data analytics to develop a deeper understanding of the entire student lifecycle, while also pursuing more personalized programs and services that consider the distinct identities and experience of students.

Increasingly, college and university presidents are being pulled in different directions than their predecessors. Chief among their responsibilities is the need guide their institutions through a series of transformational changes that will ensure their impact long into the future. This ultimately means serving the student of the 21st century, reinventing academic programs and student services, and reconsidering finance models. To do this, presidents will have to harness the analytics revolution on behalf of the entire campus community. The findings of the ACPS suggest college and university presidents fundamentally get that, and while there is still a long way to go, it is a promising development for the people, communities, and economies served by U.S. colleges and universities.

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