Deep dive into presidents


Diversity among college and university CEOs is not keeping up with the composition of their institutions’ students. Most college presidents remain older, white and male, according to the newest survey of U.S. college presidents by the American Council on Education (ACE).

An ACE report on the results of the survey, conducted in 2022 and held about every five years, notes that the “needle has moved slightly” for women and people of color in the presidency, but those shifts “remain localized and isolated — far from ushering in the necessary systemic transformation to achieve parity and equity at the highest level of postsecondary leadership.”

“At a time when the sector is simultaneously managing complex issues such as ongoing fallout from COVID-19, social injustice, troubling demographic trends and declining public trust in higher education, diverse leadership is essential to addressing the challenges and opportunities ahead,” says the report.

The newest survey looked at traditional areas such as presidential demographics, but it also for the first time culls information on ages when presidents first aspired, applied and were named president; life issues that presidents balance, such as taking care of children, aging parents and loved ones; and their support networks.

More than 1,000 U.S. college and university presidents participated in the ACE survey. More than one-third (368) were leaders of associate-degree institutions.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) plans to merge the survey data with information from its own membership database and with federal IPEDS data. It expects to release its analysis in the coming weeks. AACC provided a preliminary analysis at its annual convention earlier this month.

Age and tenure

On average, the participating presidents were younger than in the previous ACE presidents survey in 2016 — age 60 compared to age 61.7. In the 2011 survey, the average age was 60.7.

The survey shows that presidents were newer to their current post than in previous surveys, especially among women and presidents of color. In 2022, presidents reported being in their position on average for 5.9 years. That’s 2.6 fewer years than in 2016, according to the report.

Among presidents of associate-degree institutions, the average years in the current post is 5.3 years.

Among women presidents from all types of institutions, the average years served in their current post is 5.4 years, down slightly from 5.8 years in 2016. Black or African American women are newer in their current presidency (4.4 years), than women presidents who are Hispanic or Latina (6 years) or white (5.3 years).

The report notes that more than two in five (44%) of women presidents were leading associate-degree institutions, the highest representative among the types of colleges in the survey.

ACE also looked at professional development for aspiring CEOs. Women were more likely than men to participate in such programs. In terms of engagement in leadership development prior to their first presidency, women CEOs most frequently said they participated in the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Institute for Education Management (12%), the ACE National Women’s Forum (9%) and the AACC Future Presidents Institute (8%).  

Of note, however, 36% of women indicated they didn’t participate in any leadership development prior to their first appointment as president, compared to half of men presidents.

What’s next?

When gauging presidents on their future plans, 55% said they aim to step down from their current position within the next five years. One in four expected to do so in the next year or two, and 30% said they plan to do so in the next three to five years.  

Of those who plan to leave within five years, about 40% indicated they would retire or hold no other position. More than one-quarter (27%) plan to consult outside of a higher education search firm, and 23% indicated they would seek to be president elsewhere. Presidents also considered working in the nonprofit or philanthropic sectors (16%) or becoming a consultant for a higher ed search firm (16%), with another 12% saying they would like to move into a faculty role at their college or elsewhere.

Among two-year college presidents, 35% indicated they plan to retire and hold no other position upon leaving their current position, down from 38% who indicated so in the 2016 survey. Nearly 26% said they plan to move on to another presidency, with about 19% noting they plan to become a consultant for a search firm. About 11% said they are unsure what they will do.

The ACE report noted that of the presidents of color who planned to retire within five years, nearly one in five indicated they don’t plan to seek another position. ACE expressed how this could affect diversity among college leaders and also present opportunities.

“This anticipated change in leadership, particularly among already underrepresented groups, will not only affect the diversity of the presidency, but it will also impact several hundred institutions and the many students, faculty and staff who attend and work at them,” the report says. “However, these future vacancies also present an opportunity for more women and people of color to rise to the college presidency.”

When asked if the Covid pandemic affected their plans to step down, most presidents indicated they still stuck with their plans (55%). Close to 9% said they were staying on longer because of Covid, and 9% said they were stepping down earlier because of the pandemic. Among two-year college presidents, a slightly higher percentage indicated Covid prompted them to retire earlier (11%), with a lower percentage saying the pandemic prompted them to stay longer (7.3%).

Paths to the presidency

The survey shows that a faculty or academic career path remains the most common road to the presidency, with more than half (54%) of participating CEOs indicating they took one of these routes. White women and women of color were more likely than white men and men of color to have taken these paths. Another 28% were previously career administrative leaders, such as a student affairs officer or in the finance office.

Among two-year college presidents, nearly 47% cited the faculty/academic route, followed by 39% taking the career administrative leader path.

But the data indicated an increase among other paths to the top post at all types of colleges, which the report notes could have potential to help with diversity.

“There may be underutilized potential to diversity the presidency with career campus administrators and individuals from the public, business and nonprofit sectors,” it says.

Transparency in search process

The survey also touched on presidents’ experiences with transparency and disclosure during the search process. Overall, about two-thirds (67%) of presidents felt that the search process provides appropriate disclosure of the challenges facing an institution or system (down from 72% in 2016). Nearly three-quarters (72%) of survey participants felt the search process provides an appropriate disclosure of board expectations (compared to 79% in 2016), and 74% said they had a clear understanding of system or institutional expectations (compared to 79% in 2016).   

Women were more likely than men to feel they did not receive a “realistic assessment” of the challenges facing the institution during their process, the report says. And presidents of color were less likely than white presidents to feel the process provided them with a clear understanding of expectations.

“These data present an important opportunity for qualitative inquiry to understand why these gaps exist and how to close these gaps,” the report says.

Family responsibilities

Nearly one-third (30%) of surveyed presidents had children under age 18 living at home or had children for whom they had regular responsibility. Among two-year college presidents participating, the rate was 33%.

A number of presidents are also taking on other caretaking responsibilities. About one in 10 (13%) of presidents said they were caring for an aging parent or loved one. Among those presidents, 21% were providing the care themselves, 25% had paid care outside of the family, and 24% had a spouse providing the care or another family member did so (22%).

For two-year college presidents, 15% reported taking care of an aging parent or loved one. Of those presidents, one-quarter (25%) provided the majority of the care themselves. About 23% have another member of the family provide the care, with 21% saying a spouse provided care. About 23% get paid help outside the family.

The report took a closer look at all women presidents who often juggle these family responsibilities. In its sample, the survey found that 24% of women presidents said they have children living at home or are responsible for children. Black or African American women presidents (29%) were more likely than Hispanic or Latina (21%) or white (22%) women presidents to indicate these responsibilities.

Also, nearly one in five women presidents said they are taking care of an aging parent or loved one, compared to 10% of men presidents. Among those women leaders, 26% said they are providing most of the care, compared to 12% of men.


The report also looks at agreed-upon conditions of employment, such as benefits and perks. For two-year college presidents, the percentage who reported receiving most of the items listed dipped from 2016, including car and housing allowances, life insurance, long-term care insurance, involuntary separation agreement and salary increase based on merit. One of the few areas that increased: executive coaching, with 12% of presidents reporting it, compared to 5.5% in 2016.

The survey also asked what areas presidents would have liked to receive more training or development for their current job. For two-year college presidents, it was fundraising (35%), entrepreneurial ventures (34%), followed by budget/financial management, enrollment management and capital improvement projects (all 26%). Diversity and equity issues, risk management/legal issues and crisis management also ranked highly.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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