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The American College President Study: Key Findings and Takeaways


Bryan J. Cook



Higher education is at a crossroad. Even as our nation looks to colleges and universities to provide the educated citizenry we need to compete globally, these institutions face unprecedented challenges in achieving their missions. These challenges have made leading an institution of higher education in the 21st century no easy task. As a result, it is more important than ever to understand exactly who college and university presidents are. Who are these exceptional leaders? What paths have they taken to the office? What are the top trends that impact the president’s role? And, most importantly, how do the answers to these questions change over time?

The American Council on Education’s (ACE) seventh report in the American College President Study series, made possible by the generous support of the TIAA CREF Institute, addresses the aforementioned questions, as well as many others. This article, based on 25 years of ACE data on college presidents, provides a glimpse of the presidency past and present, as well as a glimpse into the possible future of the presidency.

Who Are Presidents?

In 1986, the first year of ACE’s college president study, the demographic profile of the typical campus leader was a white male in his 50s. He was married with children, Protestant, held a doctorate in education, and had served in his current position for six years.

Twenty-five years later, with few exceptions, the profile has not changed.

Two decades ago, the average age of college and university presidents was 52. Today, it is 61. In fact, in 1986 just 13 percent of presidents were over the age of 60. In 2011, 58 percent of presidents are over 60. One possible reason for this aging of the presidency is the increasing complexity of leading a postsecondary institution. As colleges and universities face a growing number of internal and external challenges, governing boards and search committees are likely looking for more experienced leaders. This tenet is supported by the fact that 54 percent of current presidents in 2011 were presidents in their last position. In 1986, only 40 percent of sitting presidents held a presidency in their previous role.

While college campuses have diversified the racial and ethnic makeup of their student bodies, the racial and ethnic composition of college and university presidents has changed very little. Between 1990 and 2009, the share of college students that were racial and ethnic minorities increased from 20 percent to 34 percent. Between 1986 and 2011, the racial makeup of college presidents only increased from 8 percent to 13 percent. Moreover, when comparing data from the two most recent president studies, racial diversity declined from 14 percent in 2006 to 13 percent in 2011.

A 2008 ACE study1 suggested a possible reason for the continued lack of diversity in the presidency: a lack of racial diversity among the positions that are typically recruiting grounds for college presidencies, senior campus officials. In 2008 only 16 percent of senior administrators were people of color including just 10 percent of chief academic officers (CAO).

Although racial and ethnic diversification of the college presidency has lagged, there has been some headway in gender diversity. In 1986 just 10 percent of college presidents were women. Today, 26 percent of institutional leaders are female. Twenty-five years ago bachelor’s institutions had the greatest share of female presidents. This is not surprising given that most all-female postsecondary institutions were bachelor’s institutions. However in 2011, associate colleges had the largest share of women leaders. One reason for this shift is likely the closing of a large number of all female institutions over the past two decades.

Career Paths

The most common career path to the presidency has remained unchanged since 1986. The CAO continues to be the most frequently cited immediate prior position for college presidents in 2011; more than one in three current presidents were CAOs prior to their current positions. Another constant is that most presidents have spent their entire careers in higher education. Interestingly, however, while more than half of college presidents have never worked outside higher education, the share of presidents whose immediate prior position was outside higher education has increased since 2006, from 13 percent to 20 percent. Much of this growth occurred in the private sector, both nonprofit and for-profit.

Not only have the majority of college presidents spent their professional lives in higher education, an overwhelming majority have served as full-time faculty members at some point in their career. Despite the changing nature of the path to the presidency, the share of presidents who have been full-time faculty members remained virtually unchanged between 2011 (70 percent) and 1986 (75 percent).

Presidents’ Duties

Since the 2001 survey, the areas in which presidents spend the most time have remained unchanged. Presidents cited fundraising, budgets, community relations, and strategic planning as the areas that occupy most of their time. Fortunately (with the exception of budgeting), these are also areas presidents reported enjoying the most. Ironically, fundraising was the area presidents stated they were least prepared to address when they began their presidency.

As always, today’s college and university presidents not only wear many hats, but serve many constituents. Students continue to be the group presidents say provides the greatest reward, followed by administrative and faculty colleagues. Interestingly, presidents also cite faculty as one of their greatest challenges.

Despite the growing complexity of leading a contemporary college or university, many presidents remain active in their academic disciplines. Since 2006 a growing share of presidents has taught at least one course and a similar share had written for scholarly publications.

The Presidential Search Process

The presidential search and hiring processes for presidents appointed since 2007 are very different than those used for presidents hired between 1969 and 1983. For example, only 12 percent of presidential searches between the late 1960s and early 1980s employed a search consultant. The share of searches between 2007 and 2011 that used a search consultant was 80 percent. Likewise, only 31 percent of presidents hired between 1969 and 1983 received a written contract, compared with 61 percent of presidents hired between 2007 and 2011.

Presidents do not take lightly the acceptance of a presidential position. As such, most presidents sought advice from a trusted source before making a decision about their current position. The overwhelming choice of counsel for a majority of presidents was colleagues in the field, or family members. Nearly 30 percent of presidents sought no advice prior to accepting their current position.

While a majority of presidents reported having a clear understanding of the job when they accepted it, a sizeable minority expressed confusion or a lack of knowledge over some aspect of the job. For example, at least one out of five presidents stated they were not made fully aware of all institutional challenges, the institution's financial condition, or the expectation of the president during the search process.


Since ACE began this study in 1986, the college presidency has changed in several areas. Not only are presidents older, but the process for selecting and hiring them has changed quite a bit. Unfortunately, there are also areas that have not changed much, namely a lack of racial and ethnic diversity and the slow progress of women to attain top leadership positions.

Leadership that is not only effective but reflective of the world around it will be key to managing the challenges of today and the unrevealed challenges of tomorrow. Rapidly ballooning enrollments, escalating fiscal pressures, the change engines of technological advances, a wide array of constituents, and a tumultuous political climate all make it more important than ever for college and university presidents to understand and be responsive to their communities and the contexts in which higher education takes place.

As students, faculty, and staff become more diverse, developing a more diverse pool of senior leaders will only gain importance.

Because the job is so challenging, institutions may prefer older leaders with proven track records in similar positions. But this preference likely works to the disadvantage of younger leaders, women, and minorities. The anticipated mass retirements of the Baby Boom generation may present a challenge or even a temporary shortage of leadership. But it also presents an opportunity to diversify the leadership of American higher education.

ACE’s leadership development programs will continue to help develop a more diverse pool of institutional leaders and increase the number of women and minorities ascending to the presidency.


Bryan J. Cook is the director of ACE’s Center for Policy Analysis.


 1 On the Pathway to the Presidency.