Think Again: Administrators Ate My Tuition! Really?

"Administrators ate my tuition!"


The growing furor over the cost of college has spawned various explanations of why tuitions have escalated much faster than inflation and family income. Often, “administrative bloat” is blamed. It is easy to find examples of college presidents with exceptionally high salaries and other senior staff who don’t teach, and it is true that the numbers of non-teaching staff at our colleges and universities have risen markedly. 

But is it also true that our colleges are being overrun with administrators? Not necessarily. What’s happening is more complex, and what you see depends on what you mean by “administrative.” 

A recent Delta Cost report did reveal widespread growth in administrative jobs—bloat, if you will. But the growth was in mid-level professional positions, not highly paid executive and managerial positions. In fact, in most types of institutions, the number of executive and managerial positions per 1,000 full-time equivalent students either grew only slightly or declined between 1990 and 2012. (Private research universities are an exception.) And the average salary of these mid-level professionals is typically less than that of most faculty.

What do these mid-level professionals do? They review swelling numbers of admissions applications, they help students get through the financial aid maze now that more than 70 percent of all undergraduates get some aid, they run tutoring and student support centers aimed at helping higher percentages of students who start college finish, and they help students and faculty with IT. They also deal with legal and human resources issues.   

Can we control college spending by reducing the number and salaries of administrators? Sure, and colleges and universities should definitely look for ways to cut costs and become more efficient. But many of these administrators are performing services that both faculty and students have come to expect. And there are other ways to control college spending too—increase teaching loads? Curb the rising costs of benefits? Limit the number of elective courses students take beyond graduation requirements? Defer maintenance on campus facilities?   

It would be nice if we could control costs by simply eliminating some administrators or curbing their salaries. But it’s just not that simple. There are numerous cost drivers in higher education today and “administrative bloat” is only one of them.

See the Delta Cost report, “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive?” for more on changing staff and compensation patterns in higher education.

Rita Kirshstein is a managing researcher in the Education Program.