17 Questions Every College Should Be Asking

We need a serious conversation about the future of America’s universities.

College flags
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About the author: Ben Sasse is a United States senator from Nebraska. Previously, he served for five years as president of Midland University.

Our oldest kid is a senior in high school, so like a lot of American households, our whole family is visiting campuses and comparing colleges. One of the striking aspects of this process is how similarly many schools seek to present themselves—and how few make any clear promises about how our daughter would be changed, improved, better habituated, or made more thoughtful by investing four of her most valuable years in their care.

As a former college president, I am well aware that every university is a complicated ecosystem, not a linear widget factory. An institution of higher education is a partnership among students and alumni, faculty and administrators, donors and trustees, neighborhoods and more, to build a community—and a culture. From the first-year students’ fall orientation to the board’s annual budget-approval meeting, everything a healthy college does requires a shared sense of mission.

Here’s the problem: Higher education is in the middle of multiple, massive disruptions—and it isn’t clear that the leaders of the sector grasp the magnitude of the waves of change breaking on their ivy-covered gates.

As just one example, it is decreasingly clear what purpose a four-year degree should serve when technology is changing the nature of work. These tidal economic and cultural changes should be prompting serious soul-searching in every board and faculty meeting, but most universities are deliberating with the urgency of 1951 becoming 1952.

I’m often asked by search committees for public and private universities to help them think about how to find their next president. As somebody who was recruited into higher education more as a turnaround guy than as an academic historian (my actual training), I find that helping develop a search strategy has a nerdy appeal to me. Unfortunately, these phone calls usually turn into soul-crushing 45-minute jargon sessions in which the committee puts itself on a path to hiring the deputy-assistant provost for violin studies because that seems the safe choice for a committee seeking to rattle the fewest powerful stakeholders.

This isn’t good enough. Our students—and our nation—need more out of higher education in this tumultuous decade.

The median American family faces deep uncertainty. Income instability and the evaporation of long-term employment threaten young people’s ability to get married, start a family, buy a home, create a business, or find a sense of rootedness. Today’s graduate will typically change not just jobs but industries three times in his or her first decade post-college.

In this context, the institutions that shape them in their late teens and 20s become all the more important. This should be driving us to ask harder questions of those who would lead our colleges and universities through the digital disruption of society. We should raise big questions about purpose and effectiveness, about technology and place, and about human capital, both inside and outside the school. The time to tolerate complacency has long since passed, and everyone who cares about the future of this critical sector and about helping our students navigate a change that’s every bit as big as industrialization and urbanization should be demanding more. We need a serious conversation about the future of America’s colleges and universities.

To that end, I have been thinking about the kinds of job-interview questions I hope more schools will pose to their next presidential finalists. Here’s an incomplete list:

Price, cost, and competition

1. Tuition consistently rises faster than inflation—why? Does tuition increase because costs are up, or are costs up because universities can increase prices?

2. Could we possibly slow our cost growth? Should we plot a scenario with five years of flat tuition?

3. Funding models vary widely, based on family income. Is the student-debt crisis as bad as journalists claim? Will there be new pathways for students with limited financial resources?

4. Every college needs to understand its positioning within the higher-education ecosystem, but critics argue that most schools are content to compete with “identical mediocrity but better gyms.” For what, with whom, and on what dimensions should our institution compete?

Learning and assessment

5. What is quality, and how should it be measured? Are our programs rigorous enough? Are our students learning enough? Should we care about (and seek to measure somehow) their development outside the classroom?

6. If we were building from scratch, would we make almost every program the same four-year duration? If not, how would we know how long each program should be? Should we unbundle how our credentials work—making them less clumpy by giving a credential at the end of each year, or at some other, more frequent interval?

Technology and the disruption of place

7. We are witnessing the emergence of high-quality, low-cost ways of learning online. How should we think about hybrid curricular options—that is, the mixing of new forms of pedagogy with old—that might be available to us? How will this affect the residential model?

8. Will most extant institutions survive the coming ed-tech disruptions in roughly their current form? Which types of schools are most vulnerable? What opportunities emerge for us?

Demography and geography

9. Given the likelihood of more demand for education from mid-career students, fed by the ongoing technological disruption of the workforce, will the expanded supply of mid-career education come mostly from existing elite schools, existing non-elite schools, non-schools becoming schools, or newly created schools?

10. Educational supply is concentrated in the North, but a disproportionate share of the growth in the college-ready student population is in the South. How will this geographic misalignment shake out, and are there implications for us or our primary competitors?

Human capital inside the university

11. Should we have more differentiated types of faculty roles? In particular, should we create new tracks for faculty members who are able to harness technology to teach hundreds or thousands of students—both residential and remote? Should these roles be tenured? Should the potential compensation be higher?

12. Beyond the faculty, are there any functional roles that we are missing, or in which we are underinvesting or overinvesting? How have our student-teacher and student-administrator ratios changed in the past two decades—and how do we measure the benefits? How do our ratios compare with those of our main competitors?

13. How much of the president’s time should be spent articulating a vision or strategy, versus directing the university’s operations, versus fundraising?

Public institutions should be asking candidates some additional questions:

The university and the state

14. If the state’s community colleges could be folded into our system, would you want them? Why or why not?

15. State regulators now often refer to the transition into college as “grade 13.” Is this a good thing?

16. How should the university balance advancing the educational attainment of the state’s current residents against addressing the state’s long-term workforce needs?

17. Setting aside “more money” and “more predictability” around state funding, what should a university system want from governors and state legislatures?

There are many more questions, from old ones (such as how universities should balance the vocational need to train a next-generation workforce against the civic need to cultivate the values necessary to sustain a free society) to new ones (such as how to keep the openness and excellence that make our model the envy of the world in an era when China, especially, is seeking to exploit U.S. universities for espionage purposes). But the questions above would at least move presidential-search committees away from the false safety of hiring candidates who can keep them on their present, often unsustainable paths, and toward finding leaders who can actually help their universities tackle the challenges they will face. And then they might actually be in a position to answer the questions they ought to have started with: What is our mission? Whom do we exist to serve?