ACE’s American College President Study Finds Higher Ed Leadership Continues Slow March to Parity, Equity
April 14, 2023

​According to data released today by ACE, the population of current college and university presidents is still mostly older, male, and White. The survey also found more than half of presidents plan to step down from their current positions within the next five years, potentially impacting several hundred institutions and the many students, faculty, and staff who attend and work at them.

The American College President: 2023 Edition is the ninth edition of the leading and most comprehensive study of presidents from all types of higher education institutions, public and private, two- and four-year. The findings are being released at ACE2023, ACE’s Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

The report contains data on presidential demographics as well as insights about contributing factors and implications for their leadership. Notably, the more than 1,000 presidents and chancellors who responded have faced intensifying pressures in the midst of COVID-19, racial injustice, and other issues during the period between the edition of the American College President Study (ACPS) released in 2017 and this new edition, which uses data collected in 2022.

The 2023 edition of ACPS was produced by ACE in partnership with the TIAA Institute, a leader in supporting and producing research on innovative models in higher education and lifelong financial security.

Despite some efforts within the sector to diversify its ranks, the findings show the average age of presidents is still around 60 and the percentage of women holding the top job at colleges and universities stands at 33 percent, up about 10 percentage points from 2006. Men outnumber women two to one (67 percent). Seventy-two percent of presidents identify as White, which compares with 28 percent of presidents who identified with a race or ethnicity that is non-White.

“At a time when the sector is simultaneously managing complex issues such as ongoing fallout from COVID-19, troubling demographic trends, and declining public trust in higher education, diverse leadership is essential to addressing the challenges and opportunities ahead,” said ACE President Ted Mitchell. “As we continue to support the presidents who are thriving in these roles, we must also work to inspire a new generation of leaders who are ready to take on these challenges and move higher education into a more dynamic and efficient future.”

When asked if COVID-19 affected the timing of when they plan to step down from their current position, 55 percent of presidents indicated they were still planning to transition at their previously anticipated time, while 27 percent of presidents indicated they had no plan to transition out. Close to 9 percent of sampled presidents were staying longer because of COVID-19, and 9 percent envisioned stepping down earlier because of COVID-19.

Presidents were newer to their current position than in previous surveys, especially among women and presidents of color. In 2022, presidents had been in their position an average of 5.9 years, 2.6 years less than in 2006. On average, White men had been in their current position about one year more than presidents of color or women presidents.

In addition to presidential demographics, new data were added this year to look at the ages when presidents first aspired, applied, and were appointed to their presidencies.

Other key findings include:

  • Of the 55 percent who say they plan to step down from their current position in the next five years, 25 percent say they’ll leave within the next year or two, and 30 percent in the next three to five years. Among those presidents, over 1 in 4 plan to retire without seeking another position.
  • More than half (54 percent) of presidents arrived to the presidency through the “traditional” faculty/academic pathway, and White women and women of color were more likely than White men and men of color to have arrived via this pathway to the presidency.
  • On average, presidents first aspired to the role by the time they were 45 years old, applied when they were almost 50, and were appointed to their first presidency at close to 52—women aspired to the presidency an average of 3.3 years later than men.
  • Overall, the average time between first aspiration to the presidency and a first presidential appointment was 6.8 years.

“Such an anticipated change in leadership, particularly among already underrepresented groups, will not only affect the diversity of the presidency; it will also impact several hundred institutions and the many students, faculty, and staff who attend and work at them. However, these future vacancies also present an opportunity for more women and people of color to ascend to the college presidency,” said Hironao Okahana, ACE assistant vice president and executive director of Education Futures Lab.

“Insights provided by the ACPS are more vital than ever in light of our need to identify and prepare the next generation of diverse leaders,” said Anne Ollen, head of TIAA Institute programs and operations. “Leveraging data to inform more inclusive policies and practices will ensure we are collectively well positioned to advance positive change for academia and society more broadly.”

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