Comprehensive Demographic Profile of American College Presidents Shows Slow Progress in Diversifying Leadership Ranks, Concerns About Funding
June 20, 2017

According to data released today by ACE, the profile of a typical U.S. college or university president is slowly changing, but it continues to be a white male in his early 60s with a doctoral degree who has been in his current position for seven years.

The American College President Study 2017 (ACPS) is the eighth edition of the leading and most comprehensive study of presidents from all types of higher education institutions, public and private, two- and four-year. It contains data on presidential demographics, search and selection processes, career trajectories, and the duties and responsibilities of college and university chief executive officers. For the first time, the report examines the views of presidents in three key areas: diversity and inclusion; state funding and political climate; and areas of importance for the future.

The 2017 edition was produced by ACE in partnership with the TIAA Institute, a leader in funding and producing research on innovative models in higher education.

The report provides a sobering look at the ongoing challenges of diversifying the ranks of the college presidency. The percentage of women holding the top job at colleges and universities stood at 30 percent in 2016, up just four percentage points from 2011. The percentage of minority presidents also saw only a four percentage point increase since 2011, rising to 17 percent in 2016 and up just 10 percentage points since 1986.

These trends suggest that opportunities to lead higher education institutions have gradually increased for women and minorities. Yet by prioritizing experienced presidents (more than a quarter of the presidents surveyed last year reported they had been president at another institution before accepting their current post), searches appear to further skew the pool of candidates towards white males, which works against efforts at diversifying the presidency, the report concludes.

“Diversifying the college presidency will only continue to grow in importance, especially as the nation’s student body grows ever more diverse,” said ACE President Molly Corbett Broad. “I am hopeful that this research will help chart a course for the future of higher education leadership.”

Looking toward the future, presidents identified budget and financial management, fundraising, enrollment management, and diversity and equity issues as the areas that will be most important to their successors. In an era where state and federal investment in higher education has become more unpredictable, nearly all reported that they spend most of their time on matters related to budget and finance and fundraising.

"Today’s college and university presidents understand the need for institutions to become more dynamic and efficient. They recognize that the success of a new generation of leaders will hinge on the development of holistic resource strategies and a commitment to diversity and inclusion. More presidents will have to double down on data-informed decision making to guide their institutions through transformational change,” said Jonathan Gagliardi, associate director of ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy.

Other key findings include:

  • The most common road to the presidency continues to be the traditional route of academic affairs (43 percent).
  • The share of college and university presidents who came to the presidency directly from outside of higher education was only 15 percent, down from 20 percent in 2011.
  • Only 24 percent of presidents reported that their institution or system had a presidential succession plan.
  • Men were slightly more likely than women to indicate that it is important or very important for presidents to state publicly the status of women on campus as a high priority (82 and 78 percent, respectively). And minority presidents, compared to their white peers, were more likely to state this level of importance (86 and 80 percent, respectively).
  • More than half of presidents reported that racial climate on campus was more of a priority than it had been in the past three years (56 percent), while 44 percent said it was about the same.
  • Fifty percent of presidents characterized their state political climate as supportive, and 41 percent of presidents believed that their state political climate was hostile.
  • Two out of three current presidents were hired through the use of a search consultant.

“The importance of the insight provided by the ACPS is more vital than ever in light of our need to identify and prepare the next generation of diverse leaders,” said Stephanie Bell-Rose, head of the TIAA Institute. “By providing university leaders and administrators with the tools and skills needed to succeed in changing and increasingly complex roles, we are collectively well positioned to advance positive change for academia and society more broadly.”

The latest edition of the ACPS derives from a 2016 survey of over 1,500 college and university presidents nationwide.

Click here for more information and to purchase a copy of the report. Follow the conversation on Twitter at #ACPS2017.

MEDIA CONTACT: Kelli Meyer | 202-939-9328 |