Concern About the Future of Higher Education Mounts Among Trustees

WASHINGTON, DC – The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), the premier membership organization that strengthens higher education governing boards, has released new polling data showing that more than 40 percent of trustees are very concerned about the future of higher education, a jump of 14 percentage points from previous surveys. The two factors most often cited as driving that concern were "the financial sustainability of higher education institutions" (38 percent) and the "price of higher education for students and their families" (25 percent).

These concerns, as well as trustee perceptions on a range of other issues, are revealed in the AGB 2020 Trustee Index, the association's third annual national survey of trustees conducted in partnership with Gallup and released under AGB's Guardians Initiative.

As trustees express deeper concerns about the future of higher education, more than half of all board members, including 54 percent of public institution trustees and 60 percent of private institution trustees, expressed concern about the financial stability of their own institution. In addition, few believe that the public, prospective students or policymakers have an accurate understanding of student indebtedness and 59 percent believe it is very important for trustees to communicate accurate information about the current student debt situation to the public.

"The challenges facing colleges and universities are numerous and daunting, including stark demographic changes, ongoing financial instability, abrupt closures and mergers, and the continuing erosion in public perception of the value of higher education," says AGB President and CEO Henry Stoever. "Trustees are acutely aware of these issues, and many are questioning whether their boards are spending enough time preparing to address them in proactive, thoughtful, and sustainable ways. It's our hope that the Trustee Index will help boards answer that question and provide the strategic leadership that our institutions need to survive and thrive."

Other key findings include:

  • Admissions. While the Operation Varsity Blues scandal drew considerable attention to the ways in which a small number of individuals manipulated the admissions process, 59 percent of trustees believe the process is fair for all applicants though 64 percent agree or strongly agree that college applicants with wealthy parents are more likely to be accepted at selective colleges and universities. When asked which factors should be considered very important for admissions decisions at their own institutions, relatively few trustees cite ability to pay (11 percent), legacy status (8 percent) or family donations to the institution/system (3 percent).
  • Workforce preparation. Just 35 percent of trustees believe that U.S. college graduates have the skills they need to compete in the global economy, a 10 percentage point decline since 2017, and even fewer (26 percent) feel that colleges and universities have a strong understanding of what employers are looking for from job candidates, another decline of 10 percentage points since 2017.
  • Diversity. Nearly 90 percent of trustees say that their institution or system is a good place for students of minority racial and ethnic backgrounds, but only 70 percent report the same for LGBT students. The survey did not find notable differences on this item by respondent race or gender. When considering their own board's diversity, board members said it is more important to increase in diversity among individual skills and abilities than in terms of race, gender, or political perspectives. When broken out by sector, private institution trustees were more likely to rate diversity of race and gender as "very important" than their public institution colleagues, while board members of public institutions were more likely to cite diversity of political perspectives as "very important."
  • Time and effort. The typical board member reports spending between 64 and 148 hours per year fulfilling their responsibilities as institutional stewards. Among the topics on which trustees feel their boards spend too little time are technology and cybersecurity; board evaluation, development and succession; and marketing and branding.

AGB Board of Directors Chair and University of Michigan Regent Shauna R. Diggs adds, "While the results of this survey demonstrate rising concern for the future of the higher education sector, it is heartening to see that board members clearly recognize many of the challenges ahead of them. Better preparing students for the workplace, supporting access and affordability, discussing the benefits of education, encouraging investment in our institutions, and promoting diversity both on campus and in the boardroom — these goals are important if higher education is to succeed in the coming decades."

The AGB 2020 Trustee Index is the third annual survey AGB designed to assess trustee perspectives on the state of higher education. Results are based on 10-minute web surveys of board members conducted between October 7 and November 3, 2019. In total, just over 900 AGB members across all sectors responded.

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges is grateful to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its support of this initiative.

About AGB
The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) is the premier membership organization that strengthens higher education governing boards and the strategic roles they serve within their organizations. Through our vast library of resources, educational events, and consulting services, and with nearly 100 years of experience, we empower 40,000 AGB members from more than 2,000 institutions and foundations to navigate complex issues, implement leading practices, streamline operations, and govern with confidence. AGB is the trusted resource for board members, chief executives, and key administrators on higher education governance and leadership.

About Gallup
Gallup delivers analytics and advice to help leaders and organizations solve their most pressing problems. Combining more than 80 years of experience with its global reach, Gallup knows more about the attitudes and behaviors of employees, customers, students and citizens than any other organization in the world.