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June 11, 2020 | Leadership insights

Presidential priorities: Areas of concern for College and University Presidents

Higher education was already facing an environment of rising costs and increased competition when COVID-19 struck, leaving higher-ed leaders across the country grappling with distance learning, empty buildings, and worried students, parents, and staff.  
How are presidents juggling traditional responsibilities plus managing new concerns thrust on them by the uncertain landscape? Read on to learn what they’re focused on – and how some forward-thinking leaders are leveraging the power of data analytics to ensure viability for their institutions.

1) Improving Success Without Increasing Costs

Improving student success rates ranks among the top priorities for college and university presidents. But, in an atmosphere where “fewer than one-half of … presidents are confident their business models are sustainable” – even before COVID – forward-looking and creative measures are essential¹.

Institutions “need to develop a curriculum for the future that incorporates new technologies like VR, AI, and advanced robotics,” says David Steele-Figueredo, president of Woodbury University in Burbank, California, “and we need to use these new technologies to further improve student retention and graduation rates.”² Forced to quickly transform to remote learning, institutions are now assessing how the new technologies and methodologies can help improve success rates while continuing to curb costs. This will allow them to turn hasty, reactive distance-learning approaches into proactive and, likely, hybrid long-term strategies.

2) Leveraging Data to Focus Initiatives

Presidents view retention and graduation rates as their two most important metrics, increasingly investing in data analytics to improve these outcomes – and COVID will likely increase this trend.³ Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) is a case in point.

In 2010, “[A] 3,000-student freshman class at MTSU could expect to lose 900 students the first year,” says President Sidney A. McPhee.⁴ Leveraging predictive analytics to understand the problem, MTSU launched a program to identify at-risk students then match them with student advisors for counseling. Full-time freshman retention jumped almost 8% in four years, and other classes saw similar increases. With the pandemic, the ability to capture data and quickly apply it to the changing landscape has become even more critical for presidents to focus efforts – and resources – in the right places. 

3) Considering Long-term Financial Sustainability

Enrollment slowdowns, mergers, and closures were already top concerns, and COVID-19 has made institutional financial sustainability a primary worry. In fact, according to Inside Higher Ed’s April 2020 Survey of College and University Presidents, “overall financial stability” and “decline in overall future student enrollment” ranked as two of the top three concerns.⁵

Here, too, data analytics can help. The University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) turned to data analytics to resolve enrollment fluctuations. Several years ago, UMGC found itself generating plenty of prospective student leads – but failing to convert. After building a data model, UMGC discovered that while marketing efforts were strong, call centers were “overused and underresourced.” Investing in call center capabilities, the university realized a 20% increase in enrollments within a single year.⁶

4) Promoting Equity and Inclusion

“Youthful minorities are the engine of future growth,” according to the Brookings Institution. With the U.S. projected to be a minority white nation by 2045, there is urgency among college presidents to better address the needs of underrepresented minorities (URM).⁷ Tellingly, COVID-19’s inequitable impact on URM students topped presidents’ current long-term concerns.⁸

At San Diego State University, the disparity in graduation rates between URM students and their peers stirred President Stephen Weber to proclaim: “A great university doesn’t lose almost two-thirds of its Latino freshmen along the road toward graduation.”⁹

Weber motivated the university to leverage data to better grasp student challenges, and leaders learned that URM students were more likely to succeed when they stayed on campus. The university began offering incentives to facilitate on-campus living, and replicated on-campus features for commuters.¹⁰ The efforts worked, with a 40% jump in graduation rates for Latino students over 15 years, and increased enrollment for URM students and Pell Grant recipients.¹¹

Data Shines a Spotlight on Problem Areas

COVID-19 sharply altered the already-complex higher-ed ecosystem, and presidents are balancing competing constraints to make myriad decisions every day. This is precisely where data can help – by narrowing broader problems into focused areas, action items, and decision points which, in turn, lead to better outcomes for institutions. During the pandemic, staying on top of unique data points as they develop, and conducting real-time analysis of the information, is more important than ever to chart the course ahead.  


[5] Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis, Part II: A New Survey of College and University Presidents Survey 
[8] Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis, Part II: A New Survey of College and University Presidents Survey 

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