New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with Richard Ekman on Challenges, Misconceptions Facing Independent Colleges

In April 2013, NEJHE launched its New Directions for Higher Education series to examine emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices.
Past installments of the series featured Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviewing: Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk about the future of the credit hour; and Publisher Mark Kantrowitz about student debt; Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie P. Merisotis about Lumina’s commitment to enrolling and graduating more students from college; American Council on Education (ACE) President Molly Corbett Broad about ACE efforts to raise educational attainment in the U.S. and around the world; AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider on liberal education; Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses; Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), on the growing challenges facing higher education governance; Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based labor market analytics firm, on the link between higher education and the economic well-being; Council for Higher Education Accreditation President Judith S. Eaton on self-regulation; American Association of State Colleges and Universities President Muriel Howard on the challenges and opportunities facing public higher education; Teagle Foundation President Judith Shapiro on strategic philanthropy; University of Southern California scholar Adrianna Kezar on the new faculty mix in higher education; and U.S. Department of Education Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne S. Studley on the role of the federal government in education.

In this installment, DiSalvio interviews Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), an association of more than 600 private colleges and universities with members including selective liberal arts colleges, medium-sized independent universities, religious colleges, historically black colleges and single-sex institutions.

The context

Independent colleges and universities are older than the nation itself. The first American private institution, Harvard University, was founded in 1636. Nationwide, more than 1,600 private, nonprofit institutions enroll 3.4 million students.

Nonetheless, economic pressures are posing challenges to the mission-driven traditional private nonprofit institution. A confluence of trends and short-term factors are battering some private colleges, particularly the small- to mid-sized privates that depend on tuition dollars.

Because adequate enrollments and endowments are critical to the overall success and financial well-being of these institutions, such long-term trends as the decline in the number of high school graduates, worries about loan debt, competition from for-profit colleges, and diminishing amounts of government aid, suggest serious and unique challenges to independent institutions.

Four in 10 private colleges report tuition revenue as not keeping pace with inflation, according to Moody’s Investors Service’s fifth annual tuition survey. “At this pace, tuition-dependent colleges and universities will be challenged to make necessary investments in personnel, programs, and facilities to remain competitive over the longer term,” said Karen Kedem, a Moody’s senior analyst and author of the report. Moody’s key findings include net tuition revenue declines for private universities at 19%.

While these trends may not forebode permanent difficulties in sustainability for all institutions, some now question whether the small to mid-size independent college is in danger of disappearing.

David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, has reported that the number of privates that are closing has remained steady—about four a year. Admitting that a good many independent colleges and universities are encountering “whitewater,” he points out many are also adapting and has said that “over time you’re going to see these institutions reshape themselves in the main and overwhelmingly.”

Some higher education experts see this “reshaping” in the form of mergers. Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, see mergers likely to increase—for both small, cash-poor colleges and for those colleges who see a merger as a more realistic approach than gradual growth to improve or diversify their offerings.

With that in mind, Zemsky, the author of Checklist for Change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise, observes that while many have praised the virtues of the unique features and missions of independent colleges and universities, there will be much less emphasis on those values in the years ahead.

Here, Ekman offers insights on independent college and university institutional sustainability, misconceptions associated with private higher education, and the role private institutions play in enriching the lives of postsecondary students.

The interview

DiSalvio: The forces shaping higher education have led some to reexamine the appropriate balance between change and continuity. Given that institutional sustainability in this environment will depend on successful adaptation to new realities, can small and mid-sized private, nonprofit colleges and universities preserve their core character or will they need to develop new models for operations and governance?

Ekman: Because they are more nimble than bigger, more bureaucratic institutions, small colleges can both preserve their essential elements and be responsive to change. Remember that the model of the small college has a track record of real success, and it would be foolish to discard it simply to go along with the latest fads. By most measures, small colleges do better than other types of institutions.

Take, for example, the fad over MOOCs. We now know that they work best for students who already know how to learn. For students without good preparation, they are a disaster. Small colleges, by contrast, have superb track records in graduation and retention of low-income, first-generation and minority students. At the same time, every college student should be able to learn from every kind of teaching format—lecture, seminar, tutorial, internship—and online. Most small colleges offer some form of online, blended or hybrid learning opportunities.

Or take a closer look at the call for new “business models” for traditional colleges. A high-quality education that produces good results in the employment, civic involvement, and personal success of graduates costs money, but is well worth it. Our goal should be to make this form of education available to as many people as possible, not pretend it doesn’t work and that a MOOC is just as good. One of the more interesting innovations to address the price of education is the recent resetting of tuition by a few colleges at a dollar level significantly lower than what it had been. What a college chooses to do in relation to the resetting of tuition has to be carefully calibrated. Sometimes it works to the institution’s advantage because it can tend to increase the enrollment pool. Most recently, Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee, Ashland University in Ohio, Converse College in South Carolina, and Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota have all taken dramatic steps. In these cases, the resetting seems to be working well and has increased the number of applicants and the number of lower-income students who have enrolled.

Another strategy has been degree acceleration. A number of institutions have launched three-year degrees and joint programs with other institutions that offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees. These too have tended to work well. To give you an example, Austin College in Texas has made arrangements with half a dozen larger universities that offer master’s level programs in a variety of professional fields. When students enter Austin College, they know they can stay for the full four years but also know they can move seamlessly after three years to a master’s program at another university.

A third strategy has been to optimize the use of physical plants—with more evening classes, weekend classes and year-round classes. Other colleges have adopted a no-frills, nonresidential alternative to a traditional experience, followed after a year or two by either the traditional residential experience or an online approach. A student can move among the different approaches as his or her schedule, finances and aspirations permit.

DiSalvio: You’ve said that independent institutions too often aren’t considered a viable option for students and families because of various misconceptions. What are those misconceptions and what evidence is there to suggest otherwise?

Ekman: One of the most common is that only wealthy students go to private colleges. But if you look at the family income levels of students at smaller private colleges and compare them with those of students at larger public research universities, you’ll find that the income levels of families of students in private colleges is lower than the average family income of students at public universities.

A follow-up question is how is it possible that these lower-income students can afford a private college. The fact is that private colleges raise and distribute an enormous amount of institutional financial aid. The amount of privately raised institutional financial aid distributed to students is nearly six times the amount of federal grant money that goes through the colleges to the students. It’s really remarkable how strong the commitment of these institutions, and especially their trustees and presidents, is to making college possible for low-income students. Fundraising for scholarship money is a top priority.

Another myth is the amount of debt that students have incurred by the time they finish college. You may remember the New York Times story about student debt that was focused on one college student in Ohio who had $150,000 in debt. The story reported that case as if it was typical. It’s not typical. The median amount of debt for graduates of public and private colleges who borrowed is only about $4,000 apart. The average amount for private college students who graduate is under $20,000. You have to ask the question of proportionality: Is $20,000 a lot or a little? I would argue that it’s a reasonable amount to invest in your future when the returns on lifetime income for college graduates are anywhere from $700,000 to a $1 million or more.

If you look at the statistics, you find that one-quarter of all private college students have no debt at all. Nearly a quarter more have debt levels below $20,000. And the default rates for students at private colleges on their student debt are much lower than the default rates of students at both public universities and for-profit education providers.

CIC is now conducting a public information campaign about the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges. Among other activities, it includes an effort to collect factual information (drawn from IPEDS and other federal sources) and we’ve made it all available to the media, to state-level officials, in the hope that we can counteract some of these misconceptions.

DiSalvio: A CIC study analyzed a number of characteristics, facts and attributes of CIC college and university presidents. What important differences exist among presidents of different types of institutions and what does this mean in terms of the future for small and mid-sized private nonprofit colleges and universities?

Ekman: Let me answer the question more generally about college and university presidents. The average tenure of a college president has gotten shorter. It’s now around seven years. It’s still the case that CIC college presidents have an average tenure that is longer than the tenure of presidents at most other kinds of institutions. I should confess my hunch that average figures of presidential longevity mask a bi-modal pattern of presidents who stay a very long time in very successful and happy presidencies and those who come and go rather quickly.

The average age of all presidents has also increased from 60 to 61 years of age. It is still the case that CIC presidents are younger on average than the presidents of other four-year colleges and universities.

For many years, CIC had a higher percentage of woman presidents, by far, than the other sectors. But what’s happened in the last few years is that the other sectors have increased the proportion of woman presidents and CIC presidents have stayed with about the same mix.

Much has been said in recent years about the presidents who arrive on a campus without any academic experience whatsoever. A very small number of people who have distinguished themselves as leaders in business, the military or politics become college and university presidents. Some of them prove to be quite successful and some are not. It would be hard to generalize about the best preparation for a presidency. In CIC institutions, about 15% of all the presidents came to their jobs from outside higher education, which is slightly higher than at other institutions.

There is no one path to a successful presidency. There are a lot of ways to be prepared for it. But as an “industry,” higher education should try to maintain a pattern in which most presidents have had experience in the ranks. The shared experience of having earned a PhD, been a faculty member and assumed successive levels of responsibility is still the best preparation and ensures a common base of deep understanding of the higher education enterprise. We welcome nontraditional presidents, but we should take care to avoid a tipping point where most presidents have not had experience as faculty members and scholars and as department chairs and deans.

DiSalvio: It has been observed that the true value of independent colleges and universities is obscured by the use of simplified and misleading statistics. Can you provide some informative data that contributes to a better understanding of the role independent colleges and universities play in enriching the lives of postsecondary students?

Ekman: I’d encourage you to take a look at CIC’s website at It’s filled with data. Regarding the results of a college education, Hardwick Day, a higher education consulting firm that focuses on enrollment, surveyed groups of alumni several years ago. They found that private college alumni tend to be more involved in their communities. They tend to volunteer more frequently, give more to charity and to express greater satisfaction with what they gained from college when compared with alumni of public universities. More recently, the just completed Gallup-Purdue project provides evidence of a less sharp difference.

Moving to the question of career success and liberal arts colleges, the work by Tony Carnevale at Georgetown University and a report by our sister association, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, shows that liberal arts graduates do just fine in the job market after graduation and over time. That’s another example of a myth that the data refute.

Another dimension of the value of private colleges that doesn’t get talked about very much pertains to their economic impact. Many of these colleges are in small towns where they’re the biggest economic entity. Private colleges require less state tax money than public universities in order to provide an education to citizens of the state. The vast majority of private colleges these days enroll large numbers of students who are residents of the state where the college is located. State governments should rely more on private colleges in their planning of opportunities for a college education for state residents. While this also may be the argument that for-profit colleges make, this reliance is especially true for non-elite private colleges and low-income and first-generation students. The number of graduates per public dollar expended is much greater at private colleges than at public universities.

DiSalvio: What federal policies and legislation coming down the road should independent college and university academic leadership be mindful of?

Ekman: I’ve been surprised that, in some states, the discussion about expanding access to higher education, which is a national goal that just about everyone shares, is discussed almost entirely in terms of the public sector of higher education. Many private colleges are not highly selective, have underutilized capacity and educate mainly students from the state in which they exist, including low-income and first-generation students.

With that in mind, I would like to see state and federal policies recognize the contribution that private colleges can make toward fulfilling the national access and college-completion agenda. Many states have portable tuition grants that a student may use at a college of his or her own choosing. What’s interesting is how much the terms of use vary from state to state. In some, the amount of money you receive is actually bigger if you go to a private college. In most, the amount of money you receive is smaller if you go to a private college, on the false assumption that the private college doesn’t need the money.

State and federal policies that reward degree completion more than mere enrollment are desirable. I wonder why we’re not seeing more state policies, such as the ones that were enacted in Pennsylvania a decade ago, that reward colleges that have high degree completion rates.

DiSalvio: Is there a message you would like to convey to the leadership of independent colleges and universities about the trends we are seeing in higher education today?

Ekman: There’s a tendency to pick a trend out of the air and act as though it is universally applicable to every institution in the same way. That is not the case. Local contextual factors account for a lot. Two institutions may be superficially similar but one is thriving and the other is having a terrible time. The difference is in understanding the particularities of the situation. Good campus leadership will recognize, then play to strengths in a way that pays off in fundraising, enrollment, educational quality, graduation rates and hiring. Effective campus leaders do not accept glib generalizations at face value, but instead do a careful job of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a particular situation.


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