3 challenges put higher education leaders to the test


College and university presidents have a lot to worry about these days. Higher education leaders have told our team what keeps them up at night, and three themes consistently top the list: enrollment, institutional mission and identity, and faculty and staff satisfaction and turnover.


Robert A. Scott, Senior advisor to the Grant Thornton Higher Education and Not-for-Profit practices and President Emeritus at Adelphi University and Ramapo College of New Jersey, explored these three challenges and some possible solutions.




1. Vulnerability to enrollment declines and closure


The colleges most vulnerable to enrollment declines and closure are the ones that have:

  • funding largely dependent on tuition
  • location in a less-populous region
  • enrollment of less than 1,000 students
  • limited name recognition
  • small endowments
  • unsustainable debt loads

This list includes approximately 800 institutions, and most are private. While private colleges are more likely to close than public campuses, recent mergers have included public institutions — such as the state colleges in Pennsylvania and proposed mergers of public campuses in Connecticut and Maine. Counting for-profit colleges, 861 institutions closed between 2004 and 2021. Of those, 689, or 80%, were for-profit. Of the remaining 172, about 4% were nonprofit institutions.


Larger regional colleges and universities, whether public or private, typically have a broader reach and larger population bases from which to draw. Nevertheless, they are susceptible to the same demographic and financial challenges. Institutions exempt from those challenges include the ones with the most prestige, name recognition, selective admissions and financial assets.


Another factor in declining enrollment is smaller high school graduating classes. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education expects the 2037 high school graduating class to be about the same size as the 2014 graduating class. Those declining numbers — together with rising tuition and fees for families and related worries about student debt — are causing more enrollment concerns for institutions.


Other hurdles include changes in college-going behavior, especially the decline in young white males attending college, and more vigorous competition for international students from institutions in the U.S. and other countries.


To meet all of these challenges, institutions must change how they manage enrollment.  The two traditional “Rs” of enrollment management, recruitment and retention, must be joined by a third “R,” reengagement. Nationally, 36 million people have some college credits but no degree. They represent a vast pool of prospective enrollees to make up for the high school deficit. Paradoxically, alumni and development offices try to court these former students for fundraising, while most admissions offices ignore them.




2. Compromises to institutional mission and identity


Many campuses are seeking new sources of revenue in the face of higher costs, declining applications and increased demand for financial aid. Adding career or job-oriented programs can challenge an institution's adherence to its state-approved charter for baccalaureate degrees supported by full-time tenure-track faculty devoted to student success. That’s because these programs often rely on part-time faculty instead of full-time tenure track faculty. A plus is that colleges can staff their programs with experts without making long-term commitments; a minus is that such faculty usually lack the office space and time to advise students and campus organizations.


In addition, new forms of academic certification can disrupt the traditions of a liberal arts college, following or leading to declines in studies in history and English.


Short-sighted college and university leaders may prioritize science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs today and ignore the importance of engaging with history, literature and the arts to develop other valuable capabilities. In the process, they may overlook the role of education in preparing informed, active and reflective citizens.


Instead, institutions should monitor the alignment of mission, vision, goals, strategies, resource allocation and results to ensure the mission is the starting point for plans.




3. Challenges to faculty and staff satisfaction and compensation


The faculty has historically been primarily responsible for curriculum, instruction methods, research, creative activity, recruitment and retention of other faculty, proposing degree requirements for approval, and the aspects of student life related to the educational process. The faculty is also charged with maintaining institutional and programmatic accreditations, participating in strategic planning, setting priorities and serving on search committees for senior administrators — all within limitations set by the governing board.


These responsibilities assume the faculty is composed of full-time members with a long-term, mutually supportive commitment to the institution. This commitment is customarily codified by tenure. Yet, in 2019, only 37% of faculty were tenured or in line for tenure, and nearly 50% were appointed on a contingent part-time or adjunct basis.


This dramatic change in faculty status has not only affected student teaching and advising, but also contributed to conflict at many institutions, sometimes resulting in “no confidence” votes against the president and the board of trustees.


In addition, studies have documented the burnout, demoralization and disengagement of staff and middle managers. In many ways, work in higher education was a “calling,” a desire to work in a culture that valued learning and personal development in a transformational experience. When financial distress causes institutional leaders to eliminate positions and consolidate services, these actions create a more transactional environment and greatly affect the workplace.


Staff members who worked remotely during the COVID pandemic often wanted to continue working from home when campuses reopened; some even threatened to leave for a more-permissive work environment. Others realized their talents and skills were transferable, resulting in greater turnover of staff.


These staffing obstacles require reflective leadership that engages the campus community in discussion and decision making that involves the board of trustees, faculty, staff, students and administration.


These three challenges don’t have easy or quick solutions. However, our colleges and universities must support their future by pursuing solutions today.




Dennis J. Morrone

Dennis Morrone is the National Managing Partner of Grant Thornton's Not-for-Profit & Higher Education Practices.

Iselin, New Jersey

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