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Trustees Believe Higher Education Business Model Needs Dramatic Change, Identify Internal Barriers

Nov 15, 2017

Trustees of the nation’s college and universities acknowledge a decline in the public perception of higher education over the last 10 years, see a need for changes to higher education’s business model and identify internal barriers such as lack of faculty support and lack of confidence among leaders as the biggest obstacles to change.

These findings are included in the AGB 2017 Trustee Index, the result of national polling of trustees conducted by Gallup under the direction of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB). Performed in conjunction with AGB’s Guardians Initiative, the Trustee Index reveals the concerns trustees have about the future of the industry, especially around cost and student debt, as well as their belief in the continued importance of a liberal arts education and their view of their role as driving innovation at their institutions.

Fifty-seven percent of board members agree or strongly agree that general public perception of higher education in the US has declined in the past 10 years. Regarding the business model of institutions, 92 percent of trustees see the need for moderate (58 percent) or drastic (34 percent) change but see a lack of support from faculty (28 percent), the lack of confidence among institutional leaders to make changes (19 percent), and the lack of consensus among institutional leaders (16 percent) as the biggest barriers.

“Trustees are an active and engaged group of institutional stewards, but their voices have been mostly silent during a period of considerable disruption in higher education,” said Richard D. Legon, president of AGB. “Understanding their perceptions of our industry is the first step in activating trustees to play a larger role in rebuilding public trust in the work of our institutions, a key goal of AGB’s Guardians Initiative.”

Additional findings include:

  • Asked about their top three concerns for the future of higher education in the US, respondents chose the price of higher education for students and their families (68 percent), student debt (41 percent), and the ability of higher education to respond to changing student and employer needs (33 percent).
  • Only 22 percent of trustees believe that preparing graduates for the workforce is the most important role of higher education in the 21st century, but 53 percent of board members believe colleges and universities are doing a good job in that area.
  • The vast majority of board members believe that liberal arts education should be included in all undergraduate programs, with 56 percent strongly agreeing and 29 percent agreeing. However, 92 percent of respondents do not believe that the notion of a liberal arts education is well understood by the general public.

“As public polling increasingly shows a credibility gap for higher education, it’s imperative that those of us who serve on institutional boards step up to advocate for the sector,” said AGB Board of Directors chair and Drake University (IA) trustee David Miles. “We grapple regularly with the challenges facing our institutions, but we also have a responsibility to speak to the broader role higher education plays in the health of our nation and society.”

Earlier this year, AGB launched the Guardians Initiative™, a national campaign to engage college and university trustees in reclaiming the value proposition of higher education and its contribution to both individuals and society. The effort seeks to harness the collective strength of some 50,000 trustees—both as fiduciaries and citizens—to play a more active role as advocates for the value of higher education more broadly and to provide information and resources trustees need to be more effective in their advocacy.

The AGB 2017 Trustee Index is the first of three annual surveys AGB will conduct to assess trustee perspectives on the state of higher education. Results for this survey are based on 10-minute web surveys of board members conducted between March 20 and April 18, 2017. In total, 1,401 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. 



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