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Survey Says: Cost-Related Issues are the Most Pressing and Vexing for Presidents

By Carole Arwidson

It’s no surprise that college presidents are feeling the heat, given the current pressures on higher education institutions today (demographic changes, geographic realities, marketplace trends, economic constraints, and family sensitivities, not to mention the number of closures that have made the news of late). And in back-to-back surveys with presidents of independent colleges, results point to the fact that the heat is turning up.

As one president noted, “The costs of the model are virtually impossible to moderate without changing the fundamental nature of the model, yet willingness to pay and the real challenges of stagnant family incomes result in financial challenges that are very hard for tuition driven institutions to resolve, absent other revenue sources.”


In 2016 and 2017, LAWLOR and RHB collaborated to conduct surveys with presidents of independent colleges. The second wave was conducted specifically with members of ACCU (Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities). Several findings reinforce the transformed landscape that these particular presidents of Catholic institutions—but certainly most independent college and university presidents as well—must operate in.

Cost issues are the most significant internal and external forces for today’s Catholic college presidents.

  • 69% said that families’ ability to pay is among their top three external challenges, while 41% said families’ willingness to pay is.
  • While only 12% of independent college presidents planned to engage in evaluating the cost of attendance in the 2016 survey, 20% of ACCU presidents said that they will re-evaluate cost of attendance in the future. This likely points to Catholic college presidents’ specific concern with families’ ability to pay.

Increasing revenues is a major challenge—and a critical imperative.

  • 100% of the ACCU presidents said they have engaged in engaged in activities (or plan to do so) to increase contribution revenues, while 94% have their sights set on increasing institutional financial resources (endowment).
  • More than half rated increasing revenues (59%) and addressing affordability (53%) as “very challenging” for their institutions. The ability to increase fundraising efforts is deemed a key factor to their continued financial success. ACCU presidents indicate that their institutions are relying less on raising tuition and more on expanding other revenue sources.

Most ACCU institutions have added distinctive academic programs as a strategic initiative to increase enrollment.

  • In the past five years, 8 out of 10 Catholic institutions added distinctive academic programs not offered by their competitors. These programs increased enrollment and revenues “very successfully” for 38% of the institutions, while 45% said increases were not as much as expected.

Alas, the challenges faced by these presidents and many others beyond the scope of our collaborative study won’t be abating any time soon. Addressing the challenges of our time will necessitate focusing on the value proposition (which includes the academic offerings and overall experience) and demonstrating relevant returns on the investment. To that end, the words of one Catholic president who took our survey ring true: “Higher education needs to demonstrate our relevance now more than ever.”


Carole Arwidson, Vice President & Director of Market Research at The Lawlor Group, presents the research results of the 2017 ACCU Presidents Survey at the organization’s 2018 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of ACCU/© Peter Cutts Photography