AAC&U survey: Higher ed leaders share top 5 concerns, priorities

Uncertainty is high among college faculty, administrators.
By: | August 17, 2021

The emotions and wishes of 700 campus stakeholders have been captured in a new report released by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) that highlights the top challenges and strategic priorities facing institutions as they look toward the future.

The vast majority (74%) of those polled in the AAC&U survey—faculty, mid-level and senior administrators—expressed concern about financial constraints and how the pandemic might impact their colleges long-term, a foreboding recognition given the rise of COVID-19 variants and positive cases, the re-masking of students and low vaccination rates.

Conducted in the fall of 2020, the survey indicated little differentiation among four-year public and private institutions, though there were fluctuations among the various individual stakeholders. Aside from financial concerns, there was agreement that colleges and universities must also prioritize persistent inequities (46%), build capacity for change (37%), promote the value of liberal arts (30%) and communicate the value of liberal education (24%). Most are looking clearly at diversity, equity and inclusion when goal-setting.

“There is no one-size-fits-all narrative for colleges and universities as they plan for the future,” said Ashley Finley, AAC&U Vice President for Research and author of the report. “The survey findings underscore the need for nuance in how challenges and strategic priorities are perceived across higher education.”

Many of those polled expressed negative perceptions about a range of areas that could affect higher education in the future. Nearly 80% were very concerned about students’ and families’ financial needs. More than 60% said they were uncertain their institutions could handle another crisis, and around 60% said they felt uneasy about drops in student enrollment and retention. Only around half were very concerned about the impacts the pandemic would have on teaching, but that number ballooned to 85% when considering those who were somewhat concerned.

Smaller institutions (those with less than 5,000 students) also were less insulated from financial constraints than large ones, with nearly 80% of respondents expressing nervousness about their colleges’ ability to overcome them. They also were the most concerned about enrollment drop-offs.

Among the top five strategy priorities listed by the AAC&U in its report were:

  1. Boosting student retention and completion (59%)
  2. Increasing campus diversity, equity, and inclusion (57%)
  3. Fostering a sense of belonging and inclusion on campus (36%)
  4. Improving faculty diversity (34%)
  5. Expanding civic engagement/community-based learning (30%)

Although institutions are heavily focused on retention, only a quarter say they set targets for equity gaps when it comes to student learning outcomes.

“Though the need to ‘improve and increase diversity’ and ‘foster and ensure equity’ were top strategic priorities for respondents, other findings suggest there is opportunity for campuses to do more in translating strategic priorities into action steps,” study authors wrote. “For example, although more than 9 out of 10 respondents reported that their institutions disaggregate retention and graduation rates by race/ethnicity and 4 out of 5 similarly disaggregate metrics for developmental education courses, only about half of the respondents indicated that their campus performs such disaggregation on participation in high-impact practices or on students’ achievement of learning outcomes.”