So What Are Colleges Spending All of This Money On?

College tuition is too high. So is student debt. Colleges exploit too many low-paid adjunct faculty. At the same time, many academic administrators are really well compensated.

All of these trends I’ve written about before, as have other interested parties, but it’s hard to know how these trends work together. How does one thing impact another?

Well, now we have some idea. According to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, high administrator pay and student debt seem to be pretty closely connected.

As the report explains:

Student debt and low-wage faculty labor are rising faster at state universities with the highest-paid presidents.

The student debt crisis is worse at the 25 state schools with the highest-paid presidents. The sharpest rise in student debt occurred when executive compensation soared the highest.

It doesn’t necessarily have to work like this. Colleges could be saddling their students with high debt in order to pay for facilities or hire more star quality faculty (as it appears many private colleges are doing).

But basically what this indicates is that high debt in America’s public colleges is probably connected to really lavishly compensated academic administrators (not actual professors, no, it’s all of those chancellors, presidents, vice presidents, and other people who talk about stuff like “strategic planning“).


This doesn’t mean that all of this debt happens in order to pay state university presidents $400,000; this seems to suggest that public universities now just operate pretty differently than in years past. Now it’s appropriate to put kids in five figures of debt and pay administrators six figures. It’s not that colleges are evil or parasitical; they seem to think they have to do this.

Back in 2011 San Diego State University decided to pay its new president some $400,000 a year. To incredulous state legislators, and tuition-paying parents, the college responded that, after all, San Diego State was a “complex institution” and “a competitive salary and benefits are necessary to attract the best and the brightest.”

Best and the brightest in what sense? Has the president proven to be superhero awesome? Was he $105,000 better and brighter than his predecessor, who did the same job for only $295,000 a year?

The sad part about this is that once we’ve moved to a place where really high salaries and really high student debt look normal, well, where’s the limit? The connection, note, isn’t between really good public universities and high student debt; it’s just lavish compensation for the leaders and high debt.

Almost like they’re running third world dictatorships rather than an institution of higher learning.

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