Board Members Say College Costs Too Much, but Not at Their Institution

December 13, 2012

Most members of college boards believe that higher education costs too much, but a majority also say their own institutions' prices aren't the problem, according to a survey on higher-education governance released on Thursday by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

A report on the survey, "College Prices, Costs, and Outcomes: Who's Minding the Gap Between Higher Education and the Public?," asked more than 2,500 board members at both public and private colleges about their perceptions of college prices, costs, and outcomes.

Fifty-five percent of board members surveyed said higher education in general is too expensive relative to its value. But 62 percent said that their institution costs what it should. Almost all boards report that they have the power and responsibility to set tuition and fees.

Susan Whealler Johnston, the association's executive vice president and chief operating officer, said the survey is important because it provides insight into how board members perceive public concerns about higher education and how they then act in the boardroom. "What we have noticed," Ms. Johnston said, "is there's a major gap between the two."

A key finding, the report says, is that one of every five board members disagreed with the statement that "the United States needs more of our citizens to earn college degrees." That opinion, the association argues, raises a "fundamental question about how board members view their board service and the mission of higher education."

Board members, meanwhile, tended to view their own institutions more positively than higher education as a whole on some measures of educational outcomes, too. Forty-five percent of respondents, for example, strongly agreed that their institution prepares graduates very well for their careers, compared with 19 percent who said the same about higher education generally. When asked whether college helps people have better lives, 66 percent of board members surveyed said they strongly agreed that their institution does, compared with 56 percent who said the same about higher education in general.

On the topic of costs, respondents were divided over whether their college was doing all it could to control expenses. Half of the respondents said their college could be doing more, while the other half said their college was doing all it could. Board members of private colleges were more likely than their counterparts at public institutions, 51 percent to 37 percent, to say that their college was doing everything it could to control costs.

When asked what drives costs at their institution, board members of private colleges cited "capital investments and campus infrastructure" as the top factor. Board members at public colleges cited "decreased state support" as most important.

The survey, which was conducted online, drew 2,539 responses from among the nearly 14,000 board members invited to participate, a response rate of 18.3 percent.