In part 1 of this series of columns, I presented data on the long-term rapidly rising costs of tuition and fees at U.S. public colleges and universities: 225 percent increases in real terms from 1984 to 2014, versus 25 percent in median family income.
These increases have led to unaffordability of public colleges for many folks and to average student debt of $29,900 for 69 percent of graduates and parental debt of $37,200 for 14 percent. Student debt now totals $1.67-trillion, a large part of our total public and private national debt, which long ago passed sustainable levels. As federal student aid rises, colleges raise their charges to absorb the new money available.
I explained that the money is going to administrative bloat and emphasis on research over teaching. Also, it’s paying excessive compensation all across campus.
Finally, I noted that the aggregate numbers of administrators rose by 2012 to almost one per university faculty member. Despite diligent efforts in eight years as Nevada higher education Regent, I couldn’t get definitive administration figures for Nevada or any of its institutions. The system and institutional administrations claimed they don’t keep such data. As the Church Lady said, “How convenient.”
Quillette magazine quoted Todd Zywicki, a George Mason University law professor and author of the paper, “The Changing of the Guard: The Political Economy of Administrative Bloat in American Higher Education.” He said: “The interesting thing about the administrative bloat in higher education is, literally, nobody knows who all these people are or what they’re doing.” Administrator titles include, for example, Health Promotion specialist, Student Success Manager, Senior Coordinator and Student Accountability Manager.
Quillette adds, “Often, executives and administrators at colleges and universities are paid significantly more than those in comparable positions with comparable duties.” A 2017 audit at the University of California (UC) found the Senior Vice President for Government Relations was paid $130,000 per year more than each of the three highest paid state employees in comparable positions.
The audit also concluded UC, “amassed substantial reserve funds, using misleading budgeting practices, providing its employees with generous salaries and atypical benefits, and failed to satisfactorily justify its spending on system-wide initiatives.” As a Regent, I saw the same problems in Nevada.
When I was Controller, I was the eleventh highest paid state employee with “controller” in his title (not including air-traffic controllers). The first nine such positions were all in higher education. The tenth was my deputy, whose salary, like mine, was set by statute.
For faculty, Quillette notes their research “often finds itself in direct conflict with the education of students in terms of allocation of funds and time, as well as what skills the university looks for in candidates, i.e., strong emphasis on research capabilities rather than educational prowess.”
The article illustrates this point with a quote from a University of Oklahoma professor whose department chairwoman told him, “To get tenure, you need a book or a series of articles. If you have great publications but lousy teaching, you’ll still get tenure. If you have great teaching but not-so-great publications, you won’t get tenure.”
It adds, “universities … focus more on research, which increases the institutions’ financial gains and standing, and less on what should be their primary goal: the education of students.” I observed this, too, as a Nevada Regent.
I also saw that full-time university faculty compensation is as bloated as administration, both in salaries and benefits. This happens in great part because universities reference their institutional “peer groups” to justify compensation. These groups typically include mainly aspirational peers that rank higher than they do. Also, because there are few if any similar jobs in other sectors for comparison.
Compensation bloat is not a problem in our community colleges. Nor among graduate teaching, grading and research assistants and adjunct faculty; they are part-time and poorly paid.
The key problem of higher education is the same as for K-12 public education and the rest of the public sector: the enterprise is run for the benefit of the employees, not for the benefit of students, other clientele, taxpayers and families paying the bills, nor for the public interest.
More next time, including explaining the dynamics of all this.