American colleges and universities face a climate of soaring costs, soaring student debt, and general wariness over the long term financial viability of our higher education model. The chief financial officers of colleges say, collectively: oh, shit.

Inside Higher Ed has published its annual survey of college CFOs, the people who are (or should be) most closely attuned to the financial health of these institutions. A couple of points jump out at you right away:

Two-thirds of CFOs believe news media reports suggesting that higher education is in the midst of a financial crisis.


Forty-five percent of private college CFOs (and 50 percent of those at private baccalaureate colleges) agreed that their tuition discount rate is unsustainable. (The figure was 22 percent at public institutions.)

In other words, a shockingly high percentage of college CFOs—particularly those at expensive private schools—would agree that, in a long term sense "we're fucked," unless significant changes are made.

However! A problem with the CFO position is that it does not tend to attract the most radical and vibrant outside-the-box sort of thinker. The methods for getting colleges on better financial footing that drew the most support in this CFO survey: cutting admin positions, cutting unpopular college programs or majors, and giving more students, classes, and work in general to faculty, presumably without a pay raise. Balancing the budget on the backs of the school's lowest-paid and hardest-working employees, in other words.

CFOs also almost unanimously reject the idea of divesting from fossil fuels. Real forward thinkers.

Fortunately CFOs don't make the final decisions. But they do see the books. This survey is enough to show you that the financial problems colleges face are real, but not enough to give you any real good solutions.

[The full survey. Photo: Flickr]