5 Takeaways from the 2021 Survey of College and University Presidents

5 Takeaways from the 2021 Survey of College and University Presidents

The 2021 Survey of College and University Presidents conducted by Inside Higher Ed identified some interesting opportunities and challenges on the horizon for higher education institutions.

Here are five key things you need to know stemming from this year’s edition of the Survey of College and University Presidents.

1. Presidents Were Concerned by The Impact the Pandemic Had on People

First and foremost, this year’s Survey of College and University Presidents found that higher education presidents were extremely concerned by the effect the pandemic had on both students and staff.

  • 96% said they were concerned about the mental health of students
  • 94% said they were concerned by the disproportionate impact the pandemic had on traditionally under-represented students
  • 94% said they were concerned by the impact the pandemic had on the mental health of their employees
  • 77% said they were concerned about the physical health of students
  • 76% said they were concerned about the physical health of employees

That these were 6 of the top-7 concerns highlighted by presidents in the Survey of College and University presidents confirms that higher education is primarily a human-first industry. 

Postsecondary chief executives are arguably most focused on the well-being of the individuals they serve—everything else comes second.

Your Action: Make Sure You’re Student-First

For all higher education leaders, this finding should confirm that your institution must be a student-first enterprise. It’s essential to be truly student-centric, and to ensure you’re addressing the major drivers of the engagement gaps that can form between students and their institutions.

2. Enrollment and Financial Challenges Are Top-Of-Mind

That having been said, the 2021 Survey of College and University Presidents also highlighted that enrollment and financial challenges are being acutely felt across the industry.

  • 85% of presidents said they’re concerned about the accelerated rates of student attrition
  • 57% said they’re concerned by the declines in international student enrollment 
  • 49% said they’re concerned by the decline in alumni/donor giving
  • 65% and 50% respectively said they’re concerned by their long-term and short-term financial viability

The reality of the pandemic—and its associated recession—is as stark for higher education as it is for every other industry. Higher education institutions saw a general enrollment decline of 3% in 2020, despite the unprecedented levels of unemployment (that generally lead to significant spikes in degree enrollment).

Your Action: Define a New Recession Playbook

Higher education leaders definitely have a key takeaway from this finding, and that’s to write a new recession playbook for their institution. Recession-response tactics are rooted in a higher education reality that no longer exists—one with minimal competition and low student choice.

3. This is an Opportunity to Transform

One major takeaway from the 2021 Survey of College and University Presidents is that they see the pandemic as an opportunity to drive institutional transformation.

44% of presidents said they believe their institutions should use this as an opportunity to transform—to “use this period to make difficult but transformative changes in its core structure and operations to better position itself for long-term sustainability.”

34% of presidents see the pandemic as an opportunity to define and capitalize on differentiators—to “use this period to focus more on what [the institution] does best so it can invest and grow in those areas once the recession ends.”

Only 20% of presidents expect their institution to return to normal, and only 3% expect their institution to shrink in the post-pandemic new normal.

Your Action: Set a Strong Course for a Sustainable Future

The pandemic has provided not just challenges, but opportunities. Becoming more student-centric and more focused on strengths gives your institution the space it may need to serve the needs and expectations of an evolving learner demographic. 

This means the institution can not only come out of the pandemic ready to serve learners it hasn’t previously been prepared to serve—it can be agile enough to adapt to future market shifts.

The starting point to delivering on these evolving expectations is to ensure your college or university is ready to exceed students’ expectations for personalization and career pathways.

4. Presidents Anticipate Future Financial Stability

In the 2021 Survey of College and University Presidents, respondents highlighted optimism about the future financial sustainability of their institutions.

82% of respondents said they were confident that their institution would be financially stable over five years, and 77% said they were confident that financial stability would hold for over a decade.

This represents a significant shift from March 2020, when only 57% of presidents in the Survey of College and University Presidents were confident in their institutions’ 10-year outlooks.

Part of that shift could come down to how quickly institutions adapted to the challenges presented by COVID-19, shining a new light on our expectations for how quickly higher education can change when students need it.

This could also come down to presidents having new confidence in their Continuing Education divisions, who rose to the challenges presented through 2020 and helped their institutions deliver the digital experience today’s students expect.

In Modern Campus’s 2021 State of Continuing Education study, only 15.6% of respondents said that the role of Continuing Education had changed negatively since the pandemic. Meanwhile, those who said CE had changed for the better noted their capacity to contribute to institutional revenue growth and adaptability to operating in a digital environment.

Your Action: Understand and Overcome Obstacles to Enrollment

Re-establishing enrollment numbers and achieving financial sustainability requires higher ed institutions to understand and adapt to shifting realities that impact registrations and student engagement.

5. Revenue Generation is the Primary Priority

Interestingly, the 2021 Survey of College and University Presidents highlighted the critical importance of revenue growth to the future of higher education institutions.

But presidents don’t seem to be thinking creatively about how to tackle this challenge. For an industry that’s historically been reliant on subsidies, this is where college presidents continue to focus.

Presidents highlighted the following three policy measures as the most beneficial for higher education institutions and students:

  • 79%: Double Pell Grant 
  • 77%: More stimulus for higher education institutions
  • 50%: Reversal of immigration policies that affect international student enrollment

When it comes to priorities for increasing revenue streams or cutting costs, presidents pointed to the following (all focused on revenue growth—not efficiency or effectiveness):

  • 91%: Cultivate new donor bases
  • 87%: Lobby for additional federal and/or state support
  • 81%: Increase grant procurement
  • 64%: Start or expand a capital campaign
  • 51%: Increase tuition rates

These are all incredibly traditional approaches to solving an incredibly non-traditional problem. However, they all point to a common conclusion: college and university presidents are primarily focused on increasing institutional revenue.

Your Action: Drive Revenue and Enrollment Growth

Following on this model, your institution can drive revenue and enrollment without becoming over-reliant on subsidies or stimulus packages. By establishing the right technology mix, and focusing on sustainable growth through diverse program options geared toward new audiences, your institution can grow its enrollments and revenues organically—to the tune of 19% revenue growth per year.


The State of Continuing Education 2021

Exposing the Modern Learner Engagement Gap

Download now

Enrollment Growth

Last updated: March 22, 2021


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