New Analysis Shows Problematic Boom In Higher Ed Administrators

Massachusetts Colleges and Universities

By: Jon Marcus
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting

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The number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students or faculty, according to an analysis of federal figures.

The disproportionate increase in the number of university staffers who neither teach nor conduct research has continued unabated in more recent years, and slowed only slightly since the start of the economic downturn, during which time colleges and universities have contended that a dearth of resources forced them to sharply raise tuition.

In all, from 1987 until 2011-12—the most recent academic year for which comparable figures are available—universities and colleges collectively added 517,636 administrators and professional employees, or an average of 87 every working day, according to the analysis of federal figures, by the New England Center of Investigative Reporting in collaboration with the nonprofit, nonpartisan social-science research group the American Institutes for Research.

“There’s just a mind-boggling amount of money per student that’s being spent on administration,” said Andrew Gillen, a senior researcher at the institutes. “It raises a question of priorities.”

Universities have added these administrators and professional employees even as they’ve substantially shifted classroom teaching duties from full-time faculty to less-expensive part-time adjunct faculty and teaching assistants, the figures show.

“They’ve increased their hiring of part-time faculty to try and cut costs,” said Donna Desrochers, a principal researcher at the Delta Cost Project, which studies higher-education spending. “Yet other factors that are going on, including the hiring of these other types of non-academic employees, have undercut those savings.”

Part-time faculty and teaching assistants now account for half of instructional staffs at colleges and universities, up from one-third in 1987, the figures show.

During the same period, the number of administrators and professional staff has more than doubled. That’s a rate of increase more than twice as fast as the growth in the number of students.

It’s not possible to tell exactly how much the rise in administrators and professional employees has contributed to the increase in the cost of tuition and fees, which has also almost doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1987 at four-year private, nonprofit universities and colleges, according to the College Board. Those costs have also nearly tripled at public four-year universities—a higher price rise than for any other sector of the economy in that period, including healthcare.

But critics say the unrelenting addition of administrators and professional staffs can’t help but to have driven this steep increase.

At the very least, they say, the continued hiring of nonacademic employees belies university presidents’ insistence that they are doing everything they can to improve efficiency and hold down costs.

“It’s a lie. It’s a lie. It’s a lie,” said Richard Vedder, an economist and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

“I wouldn’t buy a used car from a university president,” said Vedder. “They’ll say, ‘We’re making moves to cut costs,’ and mention something about energy-efficient lightbulbs, and ignore the new assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provost they just hired.”

The figures are particularly dramatic at private, nonprofit universities, whose numbers of administrators alone have doubled, while their numbers of professional employees have more than doubled.

Rather than improving productivity as measured by the ratio of employees to students, private universities have seen their productivity decline, adding 12 employees per 1,000 full-time students since 1987, the federal figures show.

“While the rest of the economy was shrinking overhead, higher education was investing heavily in more overhead,” said Robert Martin, an economist specializing in university finance at Centre College in Kentucky who said staffing per students is a valid way to judge efficiency improvements or declines.

The ratio of nonacademic employees to faculty has also doubled. There are now two nonacademic employees at public and two and a half at private universities and colleges for every one full-time, tenure-track member of the faculty.

“In no other industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this rate—executives would lose their jobs,” analysts at the financial management firm Bain & Company wrote in a 2012 white paper for its clients and others about administrative spending in higher education.

Universities and university associations blame the increased hiring on such things as government regulations and demands from students and their families—including students who arrive unprepared for college-level work—for such services as remedial education, advising, and mental-health counseling.

“All of those things pile up, and contribute to this increase,” said Dan King, president of the American Association of University Administrators.

“I think there’s legitimate criticism” of the growth in hiring of administrators and other nonacademic employees, said King. “At the same time, you can’t lay all of the responsibility for that on the universities.”

There are “thousands” of regulations governing the distribution of financial aid alone, he said. “And probably every college or university that’s accredited, they’ve got at least one person with a major portion of their time dedicated to that, and in some cases whole office staffs. These aren’t bad things to do, but somebody’s got to do them.”

Since 1987, universities have also started or expanded departments devoted to marketing, diversity, disability, sustainability, security, environmental health, recruiting, technology, and fundraising, and added new majors and graduate and athletics programs, satellite campuses, and conference centers.

Some of these, they say—such as beefed-up fundraising and marketing offices—pay for themselves, and sustainability efforts save money through energy efficiency.

Others “often show up in student referenda, to build or add services,” said George Pernsteiner, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “The students vote for them. Students and their families have asked for more, and are paying more to get it.”

Pressure to help students graduate more quickly—or at all—has also driven the increase in professional employees “to try to more effectively serve the students who are coming in today,” Pernsteiner said.

But naysayers point out that the doubling of administrative and professional staffs doesn’t seem to have improved universities’ performance. Since 2002, the proportion of four-year bachelor’s degree-seeking students who graduate within even six years, for instance, has barely inched up, from 55 percent to 58 percent, U.S. Department of Education figures show.

“If we have these huge spikes in student services spending or in other professional categories, we should see improvements in what they do, and I personally haven’t seen that,” Gillen said.

Martin said it’s true that adding services beyond teaching and research is fueling the growth of campus payrolls. But he said universities don’t have to provide those services themselves. “They can outsource them, the way that corporations do.”

To provide such things as security and counseling, said Martin, “You can hire outside firms, on a contract basis with competitive bidding. All these activities are a distraction from what the institution is supposed to be doing.”

Universities and colleges continued adding employees even after the beginning of the economic downturn, though at a slightly slower rate, the federal figures show.

“Institutions have said that they were hurting, so I would have thought that staffing overall would go down,” Desrochers said. “But it didn’t.”

There’s also been a massive hiring boom in central offices of public university systems and universities with more than one campus, according to the figures. The number of employees in central system offices has increased six-fold since 1987, and the number of administrators in them by a factor of more than 34.

One example, the central office of the California State University System, now has a budget bigger than those of three of the system’s 23 campuses.

“None of them have reduced campus administrative burdens at all,” said King, who said he is particularly frustrated by this trend. “They’ve added a layer of bureaucracy, and in 95 percent of the cases it’s an unnecessary bureaucracy and a counterproductive one.”

Centralization has been promoted as a way to reduce costs, but Vedder points out that it has not appeared to reduce the rate of hiring of administrators and professional staffs on campus—or of incessant spikes in tuition.

“It’s almost Orwellian,” said Vedder. “They’ll say, ‘We’ll save money if we centralize.’ Then they hire a provost or associate provost or an assistant business manager in charge of shared services, and then that person hires an assistant, and you end up with more people than you started with.”
In higher education, “Everyone now is a chief,” he said. “And there are a lot fewer Indians.”

13 thoughts on “New Analysis Shows Problematic Boom In Higher Ed Administrators

  1. Tuition is not the same thing as cost. The cost of a college education, measured as per-student expenditures, has remained nearly flat for the past decade, at least at public universities. The rise in tuition has been driven largely by state governments unloading more and more of the cost onto students and their families by reducing their subsidies to higher education. We can argue about whether the increase in administrators and professionals is a good thing or a bad thing, but it isn’t what’s driving tuition increases.

  2. Where I teach we have a division with a Vice president, two directors and three asst Directors. They supposed to provide statistical data for decision makers. None of them has a math degree! It boggles the mind.

  3. This article, while an interesting conversation starter, seems to cherry-pick from the key findings made in the American Institutes for Research study [1] and reads less like a news article and more like an opinion piece.

    The first mistake made here is to combine high-level administrators (Provosts and the like) with professional employees. The article implies that these “professional employees” are all executive assistants or hold “assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provost”-type positions, when in reality: “Professional positions (for example, business analysts, human resources staff, and admissions staff) grew twice as fast as executive and managerial positions at public nonresearch institutions between 2000 and 2012, and outpaced enrollment growth.” ([1], p.3)

    Furthermore, non-teaching staff who provide *student* services grew the most out of all of these categories! “Across all educational sectors, wage and salary expenditures for student services (per FTE staff) were the fastest growing salary expense in many types of institutions between 2002 and 2012″ (p.3)

    Another easy way to manipulate the presentation of the data is to combine public and private institutions and analyze them as though they were the same thing, when in fact, that is demonstrably untrue.

    Public institutions: “By 2012, public research universities and community colleges employed 16 fewer staff per 1,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) students compared with 2000, while the number of staff per student at public master’s and bachelor’s colleges remained unchanged” (p.2)
    Private institutions: “Private institutions employed, on average, 15 to 26 additional workers per 1,000 FTE students between 2000 and 2012.” (p.3)

    Should we take a good long look at higher education and try to understand the reasons for the spiraling cost increases over the last few decades? Absolutely! But this attempt to vilify all universities and pretend that they’re merely hiring more fatcat executives to oversee nonsense programs is lazy at best and deceitful at worst. The data simply doesn’t back up such a claim.

    [1]: “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive? Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education”, http://www.air.org/sites/default/files/downloads/report/DeltaCostAIR-Labor-Expensive-Higher-Education-Staffing-Brief-Feb2014.pdf

    • Good points, but a fatcat executive typically can cost multiple times as much as a standard professional support staff. More to the point, those chiefs are making the decisions to expand administration in-house and then try to cut expenses by relying upon contingent faculty, hiring lecturers instead of tenure-track faculty and other short cuts.

  4. For investigative journalism, you don’t seem to do a lot of investigating. Seems to me like you entered this article with an agenda, and then carefully selected your “sources” to fit that agenda. Let’s talk about the functions of these “administrative and non-academics staff.” How do colleges get students in the doors? Certainly faculty don’t care to draft the letters, make the visits, give the tours, etc. What about advising? At the institution I work at, we have about 20,000 students and 1100 faculty. Is every faculty member willing or able to advise 18 students? Do you really believe that an outsourced call center would meet the needs of students? Do you even know what an academic adviser does? What about student activities? You may think it merely entertainment, but there is very strong evidence to suggest that is dramatically increases student retention and learning, because students get to apply their classroom learning outside the class. On the retention end of this, I recommend looking at the research of Alexander Astin and Carney Strange. The average student taking a full course load (typically 18 credit hours) will spend 18 hours in class, so what do they do with the other 150 hours? These staff members help ensure that this time is beneficial to students. Also, the hiring of these “non-academic” staff members coincides with the increase in access to higher education. We didn’t need the extra staff before because colleges were populated by relatively wealthy, intelligent, white, men. They pretty much took care of themselves. Now we have opened the system up to students who have more challenges standing before them. It would be irresponsible to bring them on campus and then not support them. Fire (or outsource) these support employees and the conversation will shift to the retention rates, which will be in the dirt.

    Try to do some investigation next time. This is just another sensationalized piece of reporting, like any of the other big networks. This article is trash.

    • Hi Josh,

      You make some good points about academic advising and the relationships between engagement and retention. I’m familiar with Astin’s work. In short, I don’t want to argue about everything you said.

      Just this part: “The average student taking a full course load (typically 18 credit hours) will spend 18 hours in class”

      Yes, in class. But for every hour each week spent in class, students should be spending 2-3 hours on homework, studying, preparation–particularly now in the “flipped” classroom age. Look at the studies, like Academically Adrift, tying student success to *hours spent studying*. Astin can also be cited here. Yet when the students in the program I supervise come to see me because they’re having trouble, they’re all spread way too thin: too many courses because of poor academic advising, too many activities, and time spent at jobs (to pay for tuition to pay for activities). The number of support roles has increased dramatically since I was in college, yet the range of activities, near as I can tell, has tightened — more events, perhaps, but fewer activities like debate. So the money we’re spending on advising and activities doesn’t seem to be helping.

      To close with some agreement: You’re right that faculty are less willing to tackle some of the advising and activity-related roles than they used to be, but there’s a reason for that shift in willingness. The number of junior faculty has declined, while their burdens (publishing, committee work) have increased. Most faculty are now freeway-fliers, not paid to advise. Senior faculty are unlikely to take on new responsibilities they aren’t already handling, and some, frankly, aren’t interested in adding to their workloads because they’ve burned out. Energy tends to come from younger employees, and when most of those younger employees are adjuncts, the system doesn’t get to benefit much from it.

  5. I wish someone would enlighten me on exactly what services and/or support the Disability Support Offices actually provide to disabled students. At best they waste the student’s time doing stuff that the student himself/herself/itself did directly with the professor prior to ADA — and more often than not, the student would have done better prior to the passage of the ADA.
    .
    What the Disability Office does is to DENY accommodations, chew up the time of the Disabled student and then harass him/her/it on mental health grounds. I have yet to meet a disabled student who honestly believes that the support office actually does that — so please stop saying it does!

  6. As the Senior Executive Associate Vie Provost for Innovative Administration at a large public university, I have appointed a special task force of teaching faculty to write a report on this subject, and bought them out of a ourse to do so by hiring an adjunct.

    So there.

  7. We can focus on critiquing the article or look for evidence. My university has increased the percentage of full-time professional staff by 481%. Our student body has grown very little. In the last 10 years, we have moved from a president, a provost, an assistant provost, and directors of admissions, business affairs, etc., to a president, with a well-paid special assistant in addition to secretarial staff (for both), a provost/executive vice president, a vice provost, an associate provost, assistant provost (all of whom have administrative assistants and various staff/professionals who report to them), and positions formerly held by directors are now staffed by vice presidents–five, by my count. Beneath each of these vice presidents are directors, assistant directors, and administrative assistants.

    Thus, this article rings very true at my particular university, and as universities are increasingly cast as businesses, I suspect the trend will continue, as will the trend to replace tenured and tenure-track faculty with underpaid and more easily controlled adjuncts.

  8. What this article does not say – because it is beyond its remit – is that professors are increasingly beholden to demands from these administrators.

    For the last few years, every fall has met me with a new demand for documentation or review that has been slipped into out “employee handbook” by non-faculty sources.

  9. There are so many reasons for the boom in admin. staff, not all of them bad. But let me add one thing that’s rarely mentioned, a topic that we will pay for as a society down the line. While students are unquestionably driving universities into supplying resort-like amenities (many of my students admit that was a priority when choosing a school) one of the results of the increased tuition is students are now so fast-tracked (to save the uni. money) they are denied the opportunity to take electives. I’ve had freshman football players tell me their being on the team was their elective! As a person invested in the value of a humanistic education, this both saddens and infuriates me. We can all recall a wonderful class we took–outside our major–that informed our intellectual or emotional lives to this day. Some of us are in the line of work we are now because of that random class that sparked a new interest. This policy stymies the intellectual curiosity that universities are supposed to support! I know it’s not the sexiest topic, but when, semester after semester, I hear from frustrated students that they’ve heard of this great class others have raved about but they cannot take it because of their ‘track’ I appalled on their behalf, but I also quietly think “Well, this is going to be an interesting generation when they’re running things in thirty years.”

  10. While I agree with several of the points made by the commenters who suggest that the research in this article could have been better, I think one point that is being made is still of value– the shift to contingent faculty hasn’t actually saved the university much money. I am willing to bet that if we cut down on administration and special staff and started hiring full-time faculty, we wouldn’t need so many people to do the other jobs that professors used to do. Professors could go back to having the time to be mentors and teachers, in addition to researchers, who would offer the advisement and support that students need inside and outside the classroom. However, because there are so many contingent faculty members, who cannot do more than they are already paid to do (and much that they are not), these heavy loads fall on the shoulders of a few full-timers, who, yes, will eventually need administration and university staff help to complete all these tasks.

    I agree that the resort-like amenities of colleges adds to the cost, but I also think college students get a bad wrap. Many of them are looking for a good education, but they’re also looking for tangible ways to justify the astronomical cost of college. If there was a lowered cost with great faculty, career counseling, and perhaps a few key support services (academic tutoring, disability specialists, and financial aid, let’s say), I bet many students would be willing to overlook the lack of sushi at the student center.

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