If you’re willing to step outside the doom and gloom repeat cycle of higher education news coverage and conventional thinking, there’s actually some good news to be found about the state and stability of colleges and universities.
In addition to the recent news that college applications may be on the upswing, there’s more news about higher education’s promising prospects. This good news comes in the form of a survey of Chief Finance Officers at colleges and universities – the people with their noses to the numbers.
The newest update to the recurring survey was released earlier this month and shows the broad and increasing confidence that CFOs have in the financial health and stability of their institutions.
In the press release announcing the results, Syntellis, the survey sponsor, said, “U.S. higher education leaders remain overwhelmingly positive about the financial health of their institutions now and in the near term, with 89% of college and university finance professionals confident their institutions will be financially stable over the next five years, up from 72% in 2021.”
Overwhelmingly positive is not a phrase any of us have heard in higher education recently.
That 89% of college CFOs are “confident their institution will be financially stable” should send a pretty strong signal. That the share of those who express such confidence has increased ought to send one too. In fact, the share of higher education CFOs who said they agreed or strongly agreed about the financial stability of their schools was 62% in 2020, then 72% in 2021, and up to 89% this year.
The signal is pretty loud. It’s an open question whether anyone is listening. It doesn’t seem like it.
To the contrary, it seems as though we’ve already decided what the fate of our colleges and universities will be. So, we stopped paying attention. Some of us did anyway.
To be sure, these survey results don’t foretell smooth sailing – the pressures are real and diverse. Projected enrollment declines and labor costs are chief among them.
Still, it’s great news that, faced with these and other challenges, the folks who keep the books are optimistic. The report says, “Widespread optimism prevails heading into 2023.” Just 2% of college and university CFOs strongly disagreed that their schools would be stable over the next five to ten years, according to the survey.
Unsurprisingly, the report also said that, “Confidence was highest among finance professionals at four-year public colleges and universities, where 98% agreed or strongly agreed their institutions would be financially stable over the next 10 years compared to 86% at four-year nonprofit private institutions.”
That public school CFOs are nearly unanimously confident, should not be a surprise. That 86% of CFOs at private, non-profit schools think their schools would be stable for the next several years, is. Not to everyone, probably. But it’s these private, non-profit schools that have been in the crosshairs of college naysaying for years, with many people predicting a sector-wide collapse at any moment. Based on this, those folks may have to wait a bit longer.
Further, the survey also found that, “most survey respondents said their institutions are well-equipped to respond to industry volatility.”
It’s just hard to see these sentiments as anything but great news. And again, these aren’t pundits or journalists or edtech sales representatives saying these things – these are the CFOs at colleges and universities. On the issue of future financial stability, these are the people who know.
As colleges continue to defy the odds, as well as the predictions of their failures and futilities, their fortunes will do little but rise. Like the CFOs, some significant segment of the general public knows the real and long-term value that a college education provides – that college graduates are employed more often and make considerably more money than non-graduates. That hasn’t changed. It’s hard to keep a value proposition like that down for too long.
And that’s just counting the money, which accounts for very little of what college actually is. In a slightly wider view, we all need – and should want – our colleges to be stable, at a minimum. We should want vibrancy and growth.
In that wider view, there is good news about college, about higher learning. It’s not even too difficult to find if you’re willing to look.