While many higher education leaders say high tuition rates have negatively affected enrollment levels at their institutions, nearly the same amount say raising tuition is the top measure considered to ease the burden of cuts in federal and state funding, according to a poll of university financial and academic administrators.
The audit firm KPMG conducted a survey of 103 higher education leaders between May and June, and found that 37 percent said they are "very concerned" about their ability to maintain enrollment levels – which is a noticeable increase from 23 percent in 2012. The majority of those surveyed (58 percent) also said that parents' and students' inability to pay tuition is the top factor affecting enrollment levels at their institutions.
But nearly the same percentage of respondents said raising tuition is the top measure being adopted or considered as a result of reductions in federal and state funding.
"Washington has said to these institutions, 'you can't just keep raising tuition,' and yet for now, schools that can do so while maintaining enrollment are doing just that," David Gagnon, a KPMG audit partner, said in a statement. "However, this approach will work for fewer schools over time as pressures increase to reform the traditional delivery model and better demonstrate the value of a college degree."
Many colleges and universities are already making strides to change the ways they deliver education, as a way to address the dueling issues of quality, cost and access, according to the poll.
While the majority of education leaders agree that there are problems with the cost and access of college, they have long struggled to find a balance between increasing access while preserving quality.
For example, the number of higher education leaders who said they plan to put more focus on delivering online education, "without compromising quality," increased from 41 percent in 2012 to 59 percent in 2013, according to the poll. But online education has been a controversial topic in higher education, and few institutions have fully implemented such programs.
"There is a clear recognition of the importance of exploring alternative methods for educational delivery, but to date very few not-for-profit colleges and universities have radically changed their business model," said Gagnon, who also serves as KPMG's Northeast Area leader for higher education and not-for-profits. "Institutions that can strike the appropriate balance between on-campus and online experiences will be most successful."
And while many institutions expressed an interest in focusing more on online education, private institutions appeared to be more reluctant to offer courses online. Sixty-three percent of public institution leaders said increasing the number of courses available online was a top change they were making in response to trends in education, while only 42 percent of private institution leaders answered similarly.
Private institution leaders said they would prioritize spending more to keep up with changes in technology – 65 percent of leaders from private institutions said spending more is a top change they are making, compared to 56 percent of leaders from public institutions.
"Private institutions are concerned about their brand and there is a perception that online courses may dilute the small, liberal arts classroom experience," said Milford McGuirt, KPMG's national audit sector leader for higher education & not-for-profits, in a statement.
On the other hand, public institutions may be more welcoming to offering courses online because their mission is often to make education more widely accessible and available, and face greater financial pressures to do so, McGuirt said.
Overall, higher education leaders are becoming aware that families are still recovering from the economic downturn and may still be facing challenging financial situations, McGuirt said.
"Education leaders are increasingly squaring up to this reality and are thinking critically about steps they can take to make college more affordable and accessible without compromising quality," McGuirt said.