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Consider this: colleges and universities are confronting declining enrollments and escalating costs while national student debt is staggering and many are questioning whether college is worth it. Are college and university board members appropriately engaged in this potential industry crisis? They should be.

Those who sit on a higher education institution's board have a legal duty to uphold the mission of providing a quality education, and to make sure they are fully informed about both the state of higher education and their institution. One important way to be proactive in fulfilling this responsibility is to be independently informed by discovering how the individuals in the trenches – the college and university business officers – view the financial stability of their institutions.

The Inside Higher Ed’s Fourth Annual Survey of College and Business Officers contains a number of findings regarding how the business officers responsible for making sure the mission is being met view their institutions. Fully two thirds of the business officers surveyed believe that higher education is in the midst of a financial crisis as suggested by the media. Even more alarming, but perhaps not surprising, was the finding that less than 25 percent of the business officers strongly agreed that their institution’s financial model is sustainable for the next five years and only 13 percent strongly agreed that their college’s or university’s model is sustainable for 10 years. Drilling down on the findings, however, reveals substantial variation in their confidence of sustainability. While most do not strongly agree that their models are sustainable, 62 percent are “confident” that their institution’s model will last five years. However, this confidence drops over a longer timeline as only 40 percent have confidence that their model will last for the next decade. The results also vary by the type of institution; business officers at community colleges expressed greater confidence in a 10-year survival than did those at four-year institutions.

It is also important to note how business officers perceive the various factions that control their institutions. In other words, are they paying attention and getting the message. Seventy-five percent of the business officers agreed that senior administrators are realistic about the financial challenges faced by their institution and 67 percent agreed that trustees are realistic about finances, although only 18 percent of business officers at public colleges and universities strongly agreed that trustees were realistic about financial issues as opposed to 35 percent at private colleges and universities. However, a mere 22 percent agreed that their faculty members, who exercise significant control at most institutions, are realistic about the financial challenges their institutions face.

Read our Special Report to learn more about the challenges facing college and university business officers.