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Strengths and Weaknesses of Contemporary American Higher Education

Tomorrow's Academy

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Even as many Americans increasingly question the performance and value of the nation’s colleges and universities, the U.S. higher education ecosystem remains the envy of much of the rest of the world.


The posting below gives a brief summary of the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary American higher education based on what is called a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis. It is from the foreword written by Doug Lederman, editor, Inside Higher Ed in the book, A Guide for Leaders in Higher Education: Core Concepts, Competencies, and ToolsbyBrent D. Ruben, Richard De Lisi, and Ralph A. Gigliotti. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2017 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. NOTE: If you would like a full copy of the Foreword that includes the opportunities and threats analysis, please send an email to 




Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Gaining A Basic Understanding of the Subject



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Strengths and Weaknesses of Contemporary American Higher Education



Thomas Friedman is not the pundit who has engaged in the most hyperbolic comments about the fragile future of American higher education in recent years; that honor would probably go to someone like Nathan Harden (author of a 2012 article in American Interest titled “The End of the University as We Know It”) or to Kevin Carey, who wrote the 2015 book The End of College. But Friedman, whose New York Times column bought in wholesale to the massive open online course (MOOC) phenomenon and offered such recent headlines as “Revolution Hits the Universities,” might well be the highest-profile prognosticator to predict serious peril ahead for colleges and universities, given the multiple pressures of financial constraints, technology-driven competition, and changing demographics and student needs. 

Most of these commentators exaggerate the pending doom awaiting higher education. But they are not wrong to anticipate enormous change ahead for an industry that, in some segments, still looks fundamentally as it did 100 or more years ago. That reality is important for the conversation that this book’s authors undertake because, as they write, “the dramatic changes in the landscape of higher education” (p. 5) have significantly altered “the nature of the requirements for college and university leadership. … To an increasing degree, such issues pose challenges for leaders at all levels and types of institutions, and require a knowledge and skill set that technical or disciplinary preparation alone do not adequately provide” (p. 6). 

The unsettled state of higher education raises the stakes for college and university leaders, because it’s a heck of a lot easier to navigate on a calm, sunny day than in a tempest. How turbulent and threatening the situation is in higher education can be debated. What follows is my attempt to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the higher education industry, and the opportunities and threat it faces. This SWOT analysis, as it is called in corporate parlance, is an exercise that looks at internal and external factors to understand an entity’s positioning and prospects. 

Brent Ruben, one of the authors of this volume, asked me to prepare a SWOT analysis for one of a series of talks I gave at Rutgers in April 2015. In nearly 30 years covering higher education, I had never undertaken such an analysis – I’m a lowly journalist, after all, not a management consultant – and I was surprised by the request. But the exercise proved fruitful and extremely interesting (to me, at least), and I present it here with the hope that it provides context for understanding the present state of higher education and, in turn, the leadership issues that this volume explores. 

Let’s begin with two caveats. First, in some ways, one overall analysis of an industry as broad and sweeping as higher education is illogical. The strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of public two-year institutions such as Northern Virginia or Cuyahoga Community Colleges differ significantly from, say, those of private research institutions such as Stanford or New York Universities. But ideally this framework can serve as a jumping-off point that others might adapt to look at specific sectors or groups of institutions. 

Second, it became clear to me as I developed this analysis that attributes that look like strengths from one perspective can, when viewed from another perspective, appear to be weaknesses, and opportunities can, when turned to the flip side, emerge as threats. So this is a fluid document. 

On to the analysis. 


Even as many Americans increasingly question the performance and value of the nation’s colleges and universities, the U.S. higher education ecosystem remains the envy of much of the rest of the world. Here are its strengths. 


American higher education is an incredibly diverse constellation (for reasons explained later, I avoid using the term system to describe it) of institutions, ranging from purely vocational schools offering certificates and associate degrees to major universities with extensive graduate programs and billion-dollar research portfolios – and everything in between. While the industry is often seen as slow-changing if not stagnant – more on that later, too – the reality is that, defined broadly, the postsecondary enterprise has adapted to meet the needs of a wide variety of consumers, from someone seeking to become a refrigerator mechanic to those who wish to study nothing but great books for four years. Entire sectors (community colleges, for-profit institutions) have been added, and new modes of delivery (think online) established. 

History of Excellence 

American postsecondary institutions are relative newcomers, at least compared to Europe’s oldest universities. But some American colleges have been around for hundreds of years and have developed enormously strong brands. The oldest private colleges like Harvard and Yale were bolstered in the nineteenth century by the emergence of major publicly supported flagship and land-grant universities and a long tradition of producing knowledge as well as educating the nation’s citizens. 


Higher education in the United States was quicker than much of the rest of the world to embrace a democratic approach, buying into the idea that educating a larger proportion of the population would help individuals and the broader economy and society alike. The idea that a postsecondary education is key to pursuing the “American Dream” has been of enormous benefit to colleges and universities. While socioeconomic status in the United States causes larger-than-desirable gaps in accessibility to college, and other countries have more recently widened their own pipelines to higher education, the American postsecondary ecosystem’s head start helped it win public support within its own borders and establish its reputation and reach globally as a bridge to social mobility. 

Relative Independence 

Compared to their counterparts elsewhere, colleges and universities in the United States are subject to relatively little government control (though their officials often complain to the contrary). The U.S. government asserts limited authority over colleges and universities; states vary in how much oversight and governance they inflict on the institutions they help to finance. In general, the United States has created an ecosystem that encourages competition and innovation, which are widely viewed as contributing to the sector’s historical excellence. 

Tradition of Liberal Education

The liberal arts disciplines are under attack at this moment as job-seeking students flock to other majors and coding academics are exploding amid fascination with digital technology. But the American tradition of undergirding even professional disciplines with a core of liberal education, which is gaining ground globally, has been a historic advantage for American higher education – and almost certainly remains an advantage, momentary consternation aside. 

Colleges as Community Anchors

The plethora of colleges and universities in the United States means that many American metropolitan areas, cities, towns, and even hamlets have their own institution, and in most cases the college or university is a leading employer, driver of economic activity, and culture and arts provider, among other roles. Those links – not to mention the political support that institutions receive from their local legislators – give most colleges a base that has enabled them to flourish and protect them when times get tough. 

Market Share 

The sense that U.S. higher education has been the best in the world has contributed to its status as a destination for many of the world’s best students and scholars. 


While it remains the envy of much of the rest of the world, U.S. higher education is increasingly perceived within American borders as underperforming. Following are some of the reasons why. 


Higher education is a “high-touch” industry; as much as three fourths of the operating expenditures of most colleges and universities are in employee costs, a primary factor in driving institutions’ costs (and, in turn, their prices) to rise faster than the rate of inflation for more than two decades. Much of the perceived cost problem in higher education is blamed on the professoriate, but most of the recent growth in employee numbers has come on the administrative side of the house, driven, college leaders say, by growing student demand and increased government regulation. 

Rising Prices 

The assertion that the price of higher education has risen out of reach of most Americans is questionable, stoked by the mainstream media’s focus on a too-narrow band of private and elite public colleges and universities and eye-popping student debt figures that blew past the cumulative $1 trillion mark this decade. The average annual price of a public college in the United States is under $20,000, including in-state tuition and room and board, and nearly half of Americans start out at a community college, where the price is about half that. But college prices undoubtedly continue to rise unsustainably, and we are at a point where perception and reality have become one. 

Complacency and Resistance to Change 

This weakness is the flip side of American higher education’s tradition of excellence and the historical perception of its high quality. Institutions (made up, as they are, of human beings) tend, like people, to change only when they must. Given that what most colleges have done for tens (or hundreds) of years has “worked,” in terms of sustained demand from paying students, most colleges have felt little pressure to change. That situation has begun to shift in the last decade or so, as more colleges and universities question the visibility of their business models. While some colleges have cut back in ways that have affected their faculty and staff, many faculty members have been protected from that kind of pain and remain unpersuaded that the status quo is broken. 

Lack of Measurement and Evidence of Performance 

The pressures that virtually every industry has faced – of a demand for evidence and proof of quality, efficacy, and performance – came late to higher education, but they are here. Institutions have been slow to respond to them for a variety of reasons: they are decentralized, they haven’t historically been held accountable in this way (and bristle at it), and much of what they do is difficult to measure, particularly in terms of student learning.  The industry has simply been slow to develop and adopt tools for gauging what and how much students learn. Another factor is that the colleges and universities typically viewed as the leaders – elite and wealthy private and public colleges – have had the least incentive to develop a system that might measure educational quality, because they are winners in the current setup in which the public equates quality with prestige. The difficulty in judging quality – combined with what inevitably is enormous variation in quality, because every industry has such variation – means that the existence of weak institutions hurts all the institutions and the public’s overall perception of quality of the higher education ecosystem. 


I previously described higher education’s differentiation and relative independence from government as strengths that have allowed for healthy competition and innovation. There is no “system” of higher education in the United States, in my view; it might more appropriately be called an “ecosystem.” While most states have structures that organize (if not unify) some or all of their public colleges and universities, little to no formal organizing structure exists at the national level, as is true of many countries that have ministries to govern or oversee their institutions. That lack of organization and coherence not only allows for independence but also makes systematic change difficult, if not impossible, to bring about. Little can be mandated, and even good ideas and best practices can be difficult to implement or spread across institutions. This arrangement favors competition over cooperation, restricting collaboration at a time when many colleges could benefit from joining forces more. 

The lack of systemic structure also means that real or perceived institutional interests generally trump public interests. Existing reward structures, such as institutional rankings, may encourage colleges and universities in certain directions – toward greater admissions selectivity or prestige-rich research programs – when public policy considerations might favor a focus on better undergraduate teaching or admitting a larger percentage of hard-to-educate students. 

We see this weakness rearing its head in the current push to raise the level of postsecondary attainment in the United States (see opportunities section). Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of this effort, only halting progress is being made toward achieving it. This slow progression is partly because truly embracing this increase in attainment would require many institutions to emphasize some priorities (better instruction and advising, financial aid) over others (research, athletics) that they are loath to deemphasize. 

Mission Complexity / Conflict 

Almost all colleges have multiple missions – some more than others – and while those missions often overlap and reinforce each other, they can also collide. For major universities, research, teaching, and public service are the fundamental goals; community colleges have a foundational split-focus on job training versus preparing students to transfer to four-year institutions. Consider also, as just two of many possible examples, that many four-year colleges have chosen to provide highly commercialized athletic programs that parallel professional teams, or that states have demanded that two-year institutions create adult literacy programs or transition services for immigrants, and it’s easy to see that institutions may be becoming too complex and conflicted for their own good. 

The reality is that colleges and universities are better rewarded for some missions than for others, such as college rankings, state funding regimes, public perception, or other sorting mechanisms. This creates a situation in which missions that might be most in the public interest, such as providing the greatest access to underrepresented students or the best possible undergraduate teaching, may get crowded out or deemphasized if institutional interests are better served by focusing elsewhere.