Campus Commons?

What Faculty, Financial Officers and Others Think About Controlling College Costs


The concerns of top higher education leaders were succinctly captured in a December 2008 open letter to then-President-Elect Obama. In it, over 50 university presidents emphasized the importance of higher education to the nation's economic vitality and highlighted a number of key points:1

  • America’s fall from first to tenth place internationally in the percentage of the population with higher education degrees, just at the time when the country faces increased global economic competition in a knowledge-intensive economy.
  • The challenge of educating a new generation of students, including many black and Hispanic-Americans who have attended deficient secondary schools and have significantly lower graduation rates.
  • Declining state subsidies for public higher education.
  • Tuition and fees, which have risen much faster than the median family income. According to these leaders, the additional revenue has been needed to offset declining taxpayer support.

These issues are being raised against the background of what many believe will be a prolonged economic recession. The higher education leaders emphasized the importance of a “federal infusion of capital” in higher education as part of the overall economic stimulus program, followed by a 20-year vision for greater educational attainment.

An Emerging Leadership Consensus

These leaders sounded a number of themes that have surfaced in Public Agenda interviews on higher education issues over the past several years, notably in a 2008 report prepared with the National Center on Public Policy and Higher Education: The Iron Triangle: College Presidents Talk about Costs, Access, and Quality.

While there is not universal agreement on the solutions proposed in the open letter to President Obama, there does seem to be an emerging consensus that the United States faces a major higher education challenge characterized by the factors identified above. Clearly, the United States is facing some pivotal and perhaps difficult decisions about the future of higher education, decisions that demand an extended discussion and dialogue among key stakeholders.

The Current Study

In partnership with the Making Opportunity Affordable Initiative of the Lumina Foundation, Public Agenda has completed a series of small-scale studies of various stakeholder groups to lay the groundwork for that coming dialogue. The components include:

  • One-on-one interviews with 30 college presidents in private and public higher education summarized in The Iron Triangle.

  • One-on-one interviews with 18 financial officers in public higher education, including those at the state level and within individual public universities. These financial executives came from different parts of the country, from large and smaller public systems, and from urban, suburban and rural settings.

  • Six focus groups with faculty members from both two-year and four-year public higher education institutions (see Methodology for details). Again, these focus groups were conducted in different areas of the country and in different kinds of socioeconomic settings.

    By coincidence, Public Agenda has also been working on two related projects that provide additional perspectives. One is a survey examining public views on higher education called Squeeze Play 2009: The Public’s Views on College Costs Today. We are also conducting a major study with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation focusing on why so many students fail to complete post-secondary education once they start. The Gates study is looking particularly at the challenges facing young people from low-income backgrounds.

    Our analysis also benefited from related Lumina/Public Agenda work conducted in connection with the Midwestern Higher Education Compact Fourth Annual Policy Summit in Minneapolis in November 2008.2 Since the nearly 200 participants in those sessions, primarily higher education administrators and legislators and staff with higher education responsibility, discussed a similar set of higher education issues, and since Public Agenda observed those sessions, we have threaded relevant insights from that work into this report where relevant.

    Crosstalk Within Higher Education

    Despite the extensive agreement among national leaders that higher education faces a significant and pivotal turning point, the broader debate about its future is still in its infancy. Since World War II, higher education has been seen as an American success story. Our universities are often considered the best in the world. Especially in contrast with the difficulties facing K–12 education, most Americans view higher education’s problems as limited and manageable. Although many worry about escalating tuition, the existence of low-cost alternatives (such as regional state universities and community colleges) and relatively easy access to college loans have blunted the sting of this issue over the last decade.

    Based on the work completed for this report, a more deliberate and planned strategy to encourage broader, more purposeful discussion could be extraordinarily useful:

    • For most Americans, the idea that the United States faces a fundamental higher education challenge that could threaten the country’s prosperity if left unaddressed is still a new proposition. For most, the scope of that challenge—and its specific definition—is still cloudy.
    • Within public higher education in particular, there are differences in how that challenge is defined. These differences can be addressed in ways that generate more effective, broadly supported solutions. However, if these differences are not acknowledged and discussed constructively, they could also delay and derail solutions.
    • College presidents, financial officers, faculty, students and the public at large all recognize the importance of higher education and respect its enormous contributions to the nation’s economic, social and political strength. But different groups do have different concerns and priorities, and currently, they veer toward different, sometimes contradictory solutions. There is a certain level of “crosstalk” at the current time.
    • To move forward, leaders must recognize the need for more effective communications and consensus building, and they need to adopt sensible, practical ways for higher education communities to talk through their priorities and grapple with realistic solutions.

    A Common Stop On The Road To Problem-Solving

    Based on Public Agenda’s work on different issues ranging from education to health care to energy to foreign policy, this type of crosstalk is not at all unusual in the early stages of grappling with large, complicated problems. In fact, it is entirely normal and expected. However, it is a factor that should be addressed forthrightly through dialogue and open communications. Beginning with a clear grasp of the concerns and priorities of different groups is essential for moving ahead.

    Stakeholders' Views

    In the following pages, we describe the perspectives of the two groups that were the particular subjects of this study—public higher education financial officers and faculty. As a backdrop, we lay out the perspectives of all the major stakeholders Public Agenda has interviewed to date.

    Here is how they see higher education’s problems and the solutions (see the Current State of the Debate section of this report):

    College presidents  Based on Public Agenda’s research in several projects, college presidents are well aware of many of the challenges facing them, and they talk about their efforts to improve accountability in higher education and improve access without reducing quality. For the most part, however, the presidents we have interviewed emphasize the need to redefine the value of higher education in contemporary America.

    Instead of viewing higher education as a private good that benefits individuals, many argue that the country must come to understand and act upon the idea that higher education is a public good that benefits the entire society. As a consequence, they believe it should receive a significant infusion of public reinvestment. Many acknowledge the need for greater productivity—the idea that colleges and universities can and must do more with current funding. However, many also believe that most of the cost savings that are possible have already been made, that only marginal gains are available for the future.

    State financial officers  Based on interviews for this report, state financial officers have a somewhat different perspective. They share the presidents’ concern that higher education is caught between declining state subsidies and rising internal costs, but many state financial officers interviewed for this report feel that colleges and universities can be more cost-effective. Many emphasize the need to graduate more students, and their first priority is often to increase the retention rates for those already enrolled. They also often support the idea of changing the incentive structure so that colleges and universities are rewarded more for students who complete courses and programs, as opposed to the number enrolled.

    College financial officers  Financial officers at the institutional level, in turn, come at this issue from their own perspective. Many of those interviewed were interested in increasing higher education productivity and were willing, at least in confidential interviews, to ask hard questions about higher education’s assumptions, especially about class size and teaching loads. Many were also interested in greater use of technology to save money.

    Faculty  Based on the research conducted here, teachers from four-year and two-year institutions typically approach the challenges facing higher education from a different perspective. For the faculty members we interviewed, the major problem facing public higher education is declining quality. They often believed strongly that many incoming students are not ready for college, that they have weak academic skills and are not yet mature enough or self-disciplined enough to take advantage of what is offered.

    Although many faculty members readily acknowledged that cost issues are important (and they often shared worries about the cost to students and state funding levels), their main focus was on maintaining excellence in higher education. Many believed that it is urgent to ramp up the quality of education students currently receive, and they were often worried that measures aimed at increasing retention and graduation rates could backfire and weaken standards even further.

    While there is little indication that faculty are unalterably wedded to the status quo, it is important to emphasize that most begin the conversation from a somewhat different mind-set. They may be eager to look at measures aimed at improving student preparation for college and open to those that focus on administrative inefficiencies; at the same time, they may be very concerned about proposals that seem, in their mind, to focus on boosting the number of degrees without serious safeguards on academic excellence.

    The general public  Results from Public Agenda’s most recent public opinion survey show that Americans place a great deal of emphasis on access. Most believe that a college education is becoming more important, an essential ticket to the middle class.

    At the same time, the public is increasingly worried that many qualified students may not be able to attend college because of the cost. While they may not understand the details, the vast majority do not want to see access threatened further. Most think colleges and universities can do more to protect access.

    More than half believe that colleges and universities could educate more students for the same amount of money without reducing quality, a view that contrasts with the perspective of college presidents and especially faculty.

    Next Steps: Bringing The Stakeholders To The Table

    Several major themes emerge from these initial inquiries:

    • A good start  There appears to be a broadly shared consensus on the existence of a problem. Most respondents seem to agree that after its long history of preeminence, American higher education does face major challenges. This consensus is not an insignificant asset. Often debate and problem solving are stymied by the fact that the public or other major stakeholders are not ready to concede that there is a problem that needs solution. The debate about climate change is a good example. For decades, serious discussion of solutions was delayed because of disagreement over the existence of the problem.
    • A debate in its early stages  Despite this apparent consensus, however, dialogue about the future of higher education is clearly in the early stages. There is not yet a shared definition of the problem, nor are stakeholders necessarily focused on similar solutions. The most important symptom is the fact that many faculty members—who clearly must be major players in any consensus or compromise—are broadly concerned about declining quality in higher education and fear that some proposals to increase graduation rates could backfire. Given their widespread concerns about “watering down” programs or degrees, they are likely to be initially resistant to calls for more “efficiency” and goals for producing more graduates with current resources.
    • The importance of giving faculty a place at the table   As a first step in addressing this gap in perceptions, it may be helpful to launch more systematic efforts to include faculty viewpoints in discussions at the state and institutional levels. This could have several genuine benefits. It can start the process of having faculty share ownership of the problem and prevent discussions from devolving into “us versus them” arguments. It can help policy-makers better understand and factor faculty concerns into their thinking—concerns about declining academic quality, along with concerns about the productivity agenda generally and specific strategies associated with it. It can also reassure faculty that their perspective will be heard and seriously considered in the policy debate. Although it is often tempting to look for solutions initially among groups of people who already see eye-to-eye, long-lasting and more authentic progress often emerges from hearing different points of view early on.
    • An openness to some solutions, but not others (at least not yet)  It is important to emphasize that, at least in these initial interviews, faculty did not generally dismiss the need for more cost-effectiveness in higher education, and many seemed eager to know what the possibilities were and to add their own ideas and thoughts. Moreover, although many had serious concerns about changing incentive structures to focus mainly on numbers of graduates, many seemed eager to find ways for more students to complete degrees successfully. It is just that they entered the discussion from a different starting point, and as a group, faculty may bring a different set of solutions to the table. Consequently, it may also be useful to consider expanded research with faculty to understand their views in considerably more detail and/or capture their perspectives more authoritatively through a larger-scale systematic survey.
    • A framework for dialogue  The next phase of Public Agenda’s work with Making Opportunity Affordable will build on our research to develop a framework for productive dialogue and decision making. This framework is intended as a tool to help diverse stakeholders such as policy-makers, administrators and faculty understand one another’s perspectives on the financial challenges facing higher education and build common ground on how to move forward in constructive and purposeful ways.

    In this report, we lay out the observations and concerns that emerged in our interviews with financial officers and faculty members. We have also included a section that collects a number of specific suggestions from financial officers on ways public higher education could make the most of every dollar it has. The ideas are diverse and could be the stimulus for more specific discussions in a number of venues.

    A Word About This Study

    Our observations are based on a small-scale study consisting of open-ended interviews conducted either individually or in focus groups. The responses are intriguing and thought-provoking, but we believe it is important to emphasize the limitations of this work. Focus groups and one-on-one interviews are useful tools for learning how people talk about issues and for gathering a range of ideas and viewpoints. Based on Public Agenda’s experience, this type of structured “listening” is essential to generating hypotheses for further research and developing discussion models that can be refined and tested in additional settings. However, the observations here are not reliable predictors of how many college faculty and financial officers share these exact views.

    That said, throughout these interviews, we repeatedly saw characteristic patterns of thinking. Similar themes and concerns emerged in different conversations in settings across the country and in different kinds of institutions and communities. Interestingly, faculty concerns about student readiness for higher education are being echoed in student focus groups Public Agenda is currently conducting for another project.


    "Campus Commons? What Faculty, Financial Officers and Others Think About Controlling College Costs" is a small-scale exploratory piece of research that collects insights from three types of sources: interviews with 11 chief financial officers from state departments (or commissions) on higher education, 8 chief financial officers of two-year and four-year public postsecondary institutions, and 6 focus groups in three major metropolitan areas with faculty members from both two-year and four-year public post-secondary institutions. The chief financial officers from two-year and four-year post-secondary schools worked in public institutions that took funding from public sources. These schools spanned a wide range of size from major research universities to smaller community-oriented institutions.

    Because interviews were given under a pledge of individual confidentiality, we have not identified comments by name or institution. We have provided the occupations of interviewees. The quotations have been lightly edited, and in some cases, two remarks have been combined in order to delete the moderator’s questions or an irrelevant side issue. We have also edited quotations to mask the identity of the speaker.

    Making Opportunity Affordable is a multi-year initiative focused on increasing productivity within U.S. higher education, particularly at two- and four-year public colleges and universities. The aim is to use dollars invested by students, parents and taxpayers to graduate more students. The initiative, supported by the Lumina Foundation for Education, relies on partner organizations working within various states to develop, promote and implement policies and practices that will help achieve this goal.

    Download the PDF of the Report

    Campus Commons

    What Faculty, Financial Officers and Others Think About Controlling College Costs

    Media Type: PDF

    A report by Public Agenda points to the need for policymakers, public higher education leadership, and faculty to work together to find ways to keep public higher education costs under control.


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