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Winter for Higher-Ed
University Administrative Glut Worse Than We Thought

Last week we highlighted a study showing that university administrative positions rose 28 percent in the last decade, but a new study from the NECIR suggests that the problem is even worse.

Over the last 25 years the number of administrative employees at U.S. colleges and universities more than doubled, according to a joint study by the New England Center of Investigative Reporting and the American Institutes for Research. The ratio of nonacademic positions to faculty positions doubled at both public and private institutions. Overall, the industry has added an average of 87 administrative positions per day, a rate has scarcely slowed since the economic downturn, despite tuition increases. Even more surprising, academic institutions have added more administrative employees despite part-time faculty taking on more teaching duties than full-time professors.

Some analysts are critical of colleges’ spending on administrative growth, regardless of their cost-cutting efforts:

“There’s just a mind-boggling amount of money per student that’s being spent on administration,” said Andrew Gillen, a senior researcher at the institutes. “It raises a question of priorities.”

“It’s a lie. It’s a lie. It’s a lie,” said Richard Vedder, an economist and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. “I wouldn’t buy a used car from a university president,” said Vedder. “They’ll say, ‘We’re making moves to cut costs,’ and mention something about energy-efficient lightbulbs, and ignore the new assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provost they just hired.”

Administrative hiring shouldn’t come at the cost of delivering quality, cost-effective college educations. The more evidence we see, the worse the problem looks.

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  • Andrew Allison

    I suspect that the same holds true in primary and secondary education — the only goal of a bureaucrat is to increase the size of the bureaucracy.

    • TommyTwo

      Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

      Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people:

      First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

      Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

      The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

      • Jim__L

        I think VM’s authors would gain quite a bit from reading Pournelle’s blog.

        • L.B.

          Agreed! Great blog!

  • TommyTwo

    “Over the last 25 years the number of administrative employees at U.S. colleges and universities more than doubled”

    To tie this in with the previous post, perhaps we can use these administrators as a biomass source for alternative energy? Just a modest proposal.

    • Kavanna

      And a modestly swift one, too.

      • TommyTwo

        Not to mention divinely inspired.

    • Jim__L

      Turbines run on hot air…

  • Mark Michael

    This reminds me of a study of the British National Health Service (NHS) done way back in the early 1990s. It reported that when the Brits nationalized their health care delivery system in 1948, the ratio of hands-on health care providers (doctors, nurses, orderlies, technicians) to overhead administrator types was one to one. Forty years later, it was one hands-on care provider to 4 overhead administrators! An American published this study to help the GOP defeat the 1993-94 Hillary Clinton health insurance program the Clinton administration was proposing. (Note that during the period from 1948 to 1990 computers were coming into widespread use to reduce the labor hours needed to do the administrative tasks associated with any white collar industry.)

    Now, that’s a pure socialist system, since everyone is a direct employee of the government, but our university system has a high percentage of its funding coming top-down from government, either the state/local sources or the feds. Student tuition does pay a serious chunk of the cost of our universities (well, depending on a lot of things: public v. private; prestigious or not) but government funding helps to insulate the schools from normal market pressures/scrutiny to keep overhead down.

    Let’s see, state schools educate approx. 80% of college students, and up until recently, their tuition charges were pretty reasonable: the taxpayers footed much of the bill in a variety of direct & indirect ways. With the Great Recession and the squeeze on, universities were cut back a lot, exposing the out-of-control growth of non-teaching overhead administration. What this study shows us is that the universities have not truly cut back on the administrative fat: they’re still faking it. Bummer. Who’d have thunk it.

  • GlobalTrvlr

    in direct proportion to the amount of spending at the Dept of Education. For every $ the govt sends back to school systems 30-5-% is eaten up in administration – grant preparations, data collection, reporting back, etc, etc. Abolish the Dept of Eductation.

  • Waldemar1

    As this house of cards grows ever more unsteady, tens of thousands keep on marching into graduate programs thinking that they’ll have a future in higher education. You could add metastasizing administrative bloat to the 100 reasons NOT to go to grad school:

  • free_agent

    As I understand the story from the president of my alma mater (!), there is an underlying tension: You can’t get the smart, affluent students you want just by providing a quality education. They really do choose schools based on how nice the facilities are. On top of that are a lot of policies about diversity, sexual harassment, taking care of students’ mental health, etc., etc., that take up a lot of administrative labor. “Quality, cost-effective college education” is only going to attract students who can’t pay a lot, and it seems that that causes the tuition collected to decline even faster than the overall expenses decline.

  • forrestsergeante

    This administrative glut is happening in K-12 too. I used to drive by a building site in my single A school district that I thought was going to be a new school, but it turned out to be a massive administrative campus. I’ve voted against every school levy that’s come my way ever since.

  • Kavanna

    Back in the day, I called them “dean-lets,” and I got a dirty look from my department chairman one day after using the term. And it’s far worse now.

    That efficient lightbulb had to be reviewed and ordered by that new assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provost. After all, someone’s got to do real work.

  • free_agent

    Part of the trouble is that a university is essentially run by the senior (tenured) faculty. None of the changes that would restore cost-effectiveness are desirable to the senior faculty: In the old days, the faculty did a lot of the administrative work (sorting through admissions, counselling students, typing manuscripts). The senior faculty used to be expected to teach their share of introductory courses. And if students didn’t like student life or how they were treated by the university or other students, they were welcome to leave.

    • Tommy_Butler

      This seems an odd interpretation of the article. You are right, however, that senior faculty have substantially lost their governance of colleges and universities. But, I would propose, this is contrary to the desire of those faculty. For my part, as a mid-career professor, I would gladly follow the tradition of Oxford and Cambridge in having professors by an large responsible for administration alongside their teaching. They will, of course, have less time for teaching, in consequence.
      I heartily encores the implication here that senior faculty out to be teaching introductory courses. One test of a satisfactory institution is that it is possible for a student to disciple himself to a professor, taking a progression of classes with that professor from freshman year through graduation. I’ve been fortunate enough to play such a role for a handful of students in recent years, and would gladly have it as the norm of my teaching. Of course, not all of us have four years worth of wisdom to dispense, but we should, I think, all aspire to becoming some sort of factotum!

  • Jim__L

    An attentive student at one end of a log, and a great teacher at the other, was the prescription for a great school about 150 years ago.

    The only updating that needs for the 21st century is perhaps from “log” to “blog”.

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