The Cost of College Administrators

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

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