College President Views on the Quality, Mission and Value of Higher Education Today

In association with the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Pew Research Center recently released an expansive report on the “value, quality, and mission of U.S. higher education.” The report was largely based on two surveys conducted among college presidents and the general public. Here, we summarize some of the findings culled from the survey on college presidents, which provides a useful picture of current prevailing views on the U.S. higher education system among its leadership.

Quality and Direction

The survey on college presidents was conducted from March 15 to April 24, 2011, and included leaders from 1,055 two-year and four-year private, public, and for-profit colleges and universities with 500 or more enrolled students. The report found that overall, presidents still believe college provides good value despite rising costs, but have mixed views about the direction and on-going quality of U.S. higher education. The majority believe the direction of U.S. higher education is good, however a substantial minority (38%) believe that it’s headed in the wrong direction, and only 19% believe the U.S. higher education system is the best in the world (survey results vary, depending on the selectivity of the president’s institution). They also believe that the direction and quality of high school education is on the decline, resulting in less prepared and capable college student bodies. Unfortunately, the majority who were surveyed have doubts about the success of President Obama’s 2020 college completion goals.

Mission and Role

In terms of the mission and role that higher education plays in society, most college presidents believe that its primary role is to prepare students to be productive members of the work force. When it comes to the institution’s role in serving students, presidents are evenly divided between thinking college should provide skills, knowledge, and workforce training, and thinking that it should promote student intellectual growth and personal development.

The majority of those surveyed believe that the most important factor in competing with other institutions and attracting students is the strength of their academic programs, beating out other factors such as scheduling flexibility, quality of faculty and student life. More than half believe the system is doing a “good” job of providing academic programs that meet the needs of today’s economy, though only 9% believe it is doing an “excellent” job.

Overall, those presidents that believe in the institutional mission of helping intellectual growth and maturity are more likely to say that the U.S. higher education system is headed in the right direction and provide a good value for students and their families. Alternatively, those who prioritize workplace preparation are more likely to be pessimistic about the direction of higher education and the quality of students today.

College President Views at a Glance

-6 in 10 believe the U.S. higher education system is heading in the right direction, while 38% believe it is headed in the wrong direction

-58% say public high school students are less prepared for college than their counterparts 10 years ago

-19% say the U.S. higher education system is the best in the world, while 51% say it is one of the best

-64% say it is unlikely the U.S. will reach the 2020 college completion goals set by President Obama

-63% believe that students and their parents should be responsible for the largest share of college education costs

-7 in 10 favor contractual faculty employment over tenure (with the exception of heads of public four-year institutions, who are split on the matter)

-57% agree with the public that the cost of college today is unaffordable for many

-40% believe the higher education institution’s role in broader society is to prepare students to be productive workforce members, 28% believe its role is to prepare students to be responsible citizens, 21% believe it’s to ensure all qualified students obtain equal access to a college education

To access the full report, including results from the survey conducted on the public, go here.

Ellen Heffernan

President - Spelman Johnson

Ellen Heffernan graduated from Smith College with a B.A. in economics and government. She joined Spelman Johnson in 1996, after a ten-year career in higher education that included positions at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also a national speaker and writer on topics related to recruiting and professional development in higher education and serves as faculty for several national higher education association professional development programs. Ellen also currently serves on the executive board of the National Association of Executive Recruiters.