Want to get college costs in line? Start by cutting the overgrown management ranks.
Photo: Mario Lalich
No statistic about higher education commands more attention—and anxiety—among members of the public than the rising price of admission. Since 1980, inflation- adjusted tuition at public universities has tripled; at private universities it has more than doubled. Compared to all other goods and services in the American economy, including medical care, only “cigarettes and other tobacco products” have seen prices rise faster than the cost of going to college. And for all that, parents who sign away ever-larger tuition checks can be forgiven for doubting whether universities are spending those additional funds in ways that make their kids’ educations better—to say nothing of three times better.
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, at approximately fifteen or sixteen students per instructor. 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.
Apparently, as colleges and universities have had more money to spend, they have not chosen to spend it on expanding their instructional resources—that is, on paying faculty. They have chosen, instead, to enhance their administrative and staff resources. A comprehensive study published by the Delta Cost Project in 2010 reported that between 1998 and 2008, America’s private colleges increased spending on instruction by 22 percent while increasing spending on administration and staff support by 36 percent. Parents who wonder why college tuition is so high and why it increases so much each year may be less than pleased to learn that their sons and daughters will have an opportunity to interact with more administrators and staffers— but not more professors. Well, you can’t have everything.
Of course, universities have always employed administrators. When I was a graduate student in the 1960s and a young professor in the 1970s, however, top administrators were generally drawn from the faculty, and even midlevel managerial tasks were directed by faculty members. These moonlighting academics typically occupied administrative slots on a part-time or temporary basis and planned in due course to return to full-time teaching and research. Whatever their individual faults and gifts, faculty administrators seldom had to be reminded that the purpose of a university was the promotion of education and research, and their own short-term managerial endeavors tended not to distract them from their long-term academic commitments.
Alas, today’s full-time professional administrators tend to view management as an end in and of itself. Most have no faculty experience, and even those who have spent time in a classroom or laboratory often hope to make administration their life’s work and have no plan to return to teaching. For many of these career managers, promoting teaching and research is less important than expanding their own administrative domains. Under their supervision, the means have become the end.
Every year, hosts of administrators and staffers are added to college and university payrolls, even as schools claim to be battling budget crises that are forcing them to reduce the size of their full-time faculties. As a result, universities are now filled with armies of functionaries—vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants—who, more and more, direct the operations of every school. If there is any hope of getting higher education costs in line, and improving its quality—and I think there is, though the hour is late—it begins with taking a pair of shears to the overgrown administrative bureaucracy.
Forty years ago, America’s colleges employed more professors than administrators. The efforts of 446,830 professors were supported by 268,952 administrators and staffers. Over the past four decades, though, the number of full-time professors or “full-time equivalents”—that is, slots filled by two or more part-time faculty members whose combined hours equal those of a full-timer—increased slightly more than 50 percent. That percentage is comparable to the growth in student enrollments during the same time period. But the number of administrators and administrative staffers employed by those schools increased by an astonishing 85 percent and 240 percent, respectively.
Today, administrators and staffers safely outnumber full-time faculty members on campus. In 2005, colleges and universities employed more than 675,000 fulltime faculty members or full-time equivalents. In the same year, America’s colleges and universities employed more than 190,000 individuals classified by the federal government as “executive, administrative and managerial employees.” Another 566,405 college and university employees were classified as “other professional.” This category includes IT specialists, counselors, auditors, accountants, admissions officers, development officers, alumni relations officials, human resources staffers, editors and writers for school publications, attorneys, and a slew of others. These “other professionals” are not administrators, but they work for the administration and serve as its arms, legs, eyes, ears, and mouthpieces.
Before they employed an army of professional staffers, administrators were forced to rely on the cooperation of the faculty to carry out tasks ranging from admissions to planning. An administration that lost the confidence of the faculty might find itself unable to function. Today, ranks of staffers form a bulwark of administrative power in the contemporary university. These administrative staffers do not work for or, in many cases, even share information with the faculty. They help make the administration, in the language of political science, “relatively autonomous,” marginalizing the faculty.
While some administrative posts continue to be held by senior professors on a part-time basis, their ranks are gradually dwindling as their jobs are taken over by fulltime managers. College administrations frequently tout the fiscal advantages of using part-time, “adjunct” faculty to teach courses. They fail, however, to apply the same logic to their own ranks. Over the past thirty years, the percentage of faculty members who are hired on a part-time basis has increased so dramatically that today almost half of the nation’s professors work only part-time. And yet the percentage of administrators who are part-time employees has fallen during the same time period.
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