College Guide


January 01, 2013 10:00 AM The Cost of College Administrators

By Daniel Luzer

Colleges employ a lot of academic administrators. These people, with titles like “vice president” or “director,” teach no students but spend vast university resources. Many argue they’re not really necessary. They’re certainly expensive anyway.

Back in September/October 2011 the Washington Monthly published an article, “Administrators Ate My Tuition,” arguing that one important reason for the massive increase in college tuition over the last several decades has to do with the increase in the number of academic administrators that the American university employs. As writer Benjamin Ginsberg argued:

Between 1975 and 2005, total spending by American higher educational institutions, stated in constant dollars, tripled, to more than $325 billion per year. Over the same period, the faculty-to-student ratio has remained fairly constant…. One thing that has changed, dramatically, is the administrator-per-student ratio. In 1975, colleges employed one administrator for every eighty-four students and one professional staffer—admissions officers, information technology specialists, and the like—for every fifty students. By 2005, the administrator-to-student ratio had dropped to one administrator for every sixty-eight students while the ratio of professional staffers had dropped to one for every twenty-one students.

It turns out we now have direct evidence. According to a recent article by Douglas Belkin and Scott Thurm in the Wall Street Journal, administrative hiring is causing tuition to increase, at least specifically at the University of Minnesota. As they write:

At Minnesota, tuition and fees for state residents have more than doubled in a decade, to $13,524. That far exceeds the average at four-year public colleges of $8,655, which also represents a doubling, according to the College Board. Private-college tuition averages $29,056, but has risen more slowly.
The Journal, using payroll data provided by the university, calculated that across all of the system’s campuses, administrators consume 24% of the payroll, up from 20% in 2001. Employees who teach, such as professors, lecturers and instructors, account for 37% of the payroll, down from 39% in 2001, the Journal calculated.

The authors point out that in 1975, “a University of Minnesota undergraduate could cover tuition by working six hours a week year-round at a minimum-wage job,” but today he would have to work 32 hours a week to cover tuition. This means he effectively can’t work and attend college at the same time. But that’s not entirely due to high paid administrators; the University of Minnesota system also suffered declining funds from the state.

It’s also worth pointing out that just because administrators are expensive doesn’t mean they’re useless. Universities employ administrators for a whole variety of purposes: to improve the diversity of campuses, to comply with federal laws, to attract students to study at their schools.

Still, now that we’re becoming aware of how much administrative staff really cost a school, it’s probably time to perform some calculation of what they really bring in.

Some policymakers are now trying to measure the “output” of professors. Isn’t it perfectly appropriate to try to measure the output of people in universities who don’t produce research or teach?

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Snarki, child of Loki on January 01, 2013 11:59 AM:

    A significant fraction of those administrators have NEGATIVE value. To justify their existence, they make it harder for others to do the jobs that they should be doing.

    But please realize, the bloating of admin is a consequence, not a cause...tuition goes up because it CAN: supply and demand. But colleges can't just declare a profit and give out dividends, they have to USE that money somehow.

    And Administrators have decided that Administration is the MOST IMPORTANT THING that can be done with that money. Funny, that.

    Change the tax code so that educational non-profits can spend no more than 25% on administration or they'll lose their non-profit status. The whining will be deafening, but it'll put the lid back on Admin expenses.

  • Daniel on January 01, 2013 2:49 PM:

    Well administrators consume only 24% of the payroll at the University of Minnesota system, so at least that education institution appears to be is spending less than 25% of its total budget on administration. Minnesota appears to be typical of colleges.

  • Snarki, child of Loki on January 01, 2013 6:45 PM:

    There's a graph for the UC system, showing admin cost as a function of time. It's now over 50%.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on January 04, 2013 3:58 PM:

    As a low-ranking desk-jockey in a university, I'll just say that if a I had a nickel for every time a student said "I expect better service with the amount of tuition I pay", I wouldn't have to be a low-ranking desk jockey in a university.

    Granted I work at private college and also went to a private a college, so I may have a bit of a bias. Personally, I never complained about the student-faculty ratio, but I sure as hell raised a stink if the university wi-fi was slow or maybe someone in Student Services to follow up quick enough to an email inquiry. I was a bit spoiled when I was in college, and the students where I work are similarly spoiled with institutional goodies that a legion of administrators and pencil-pushers can provide.

    I hate to admit it but, college nowadays is almost trending toward the hospitality industry. There are the "motel" schools that provide the bare bones education and leave networking, finding employment, and making academic decisions entirely to the (independent-minded) student. And then there are the "resort" schools, which provide everything from networking galas for alumni to laundry service for freshman...

    At the end of the day, I don't know if we should be alarmed or welcoming of these trends...