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The Higher Ed Bubble
University Administration Bloat: The Tail the Size of the Dog

In a characteristically insightful USA Today column, Glenn Harlan Reynolds (a.k.a. Instapundit) takes aim at perhaps the biggest single obstacle to higher ed reform today: administrators. After first noting the high salaries of some university presidents—high is charitable; doubtlessly were these the salaries of private-sector CEOs, faculty at those same universities would deride them as ‘obscene’—that have recently been in the news, Reynolds trains his lens on the wider problem:

But while the over-generous compensation of universities’ CEOs is what gets the press attention, it’s not the biggest problem. Rather, the drastic cost increases associated with higher education stem mostly from lower levels of administration. For every highly paid president, universities are afflicted with scores of lower-level administrators, often earning in the six figures, who get far less attention. And each of those administrators, of course, has a fiefdom stocked with lower-paid, but more numerous, administrators and secretaries.

How bad has it gotten? Well, we’ve reached the point at which many, probably most, universities have more administrators than they have teaching faculty.

At California Polytechnic University-Pomona, for instance, the number of administrators grew 221% from 1975 to 2008. Administrators now outnumber faculty at that school 12,183 to 12,019. In 2010, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor employed 49% more full-time administrative and professional staff than full-time faculty. Nationwide, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at leading universities grew by 39% between 1993 and 2007, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research, or service grew only 18%, according to the Goldwater Institute.

This isn’t so much the tail wagging the dog as a tail that has grown as big as the dog—a good sign that it’s cancerous, and probably needs to be removed for the health of your dog. Few things would help students so much, or harm the core functions of education so little, as a 50% across the board cut in higher ed bureaucracy costs.

Moreover, the obscene (and here that term is appropriate) bloat in higher ed bureaucrats does not just represent an inappropriate use of funds: it actually drives the spiraling cost of education to begin with. The link between  federal mandates, federal funds, and grotesque cost inflation for administrators is one of the worst “iron triangles” in American public life. As Reynold’s piece suggests, each of those elements is now coming under increasing scrutiny.

Faster, please.

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  • Anthony

    “In today’s competitive economy, nothing is more important than getting a college education. Yet tuition costs in the U.S. have been increasing at a breakneck pace…There is a broad consensus that out-of-control tuition is a serious problem for the nation…However, there is no such agreement on why tuition is increasing. Experts have blamed rising tuition on everything from administrative bloat, to increase availability of grants and loans, to campus construction booms….” See: http://www.demos.org/publication/pulling-higher-ed-ladder-myths-and-reality-crisis-college-affordability

    • R_of_the_H

      Try the “Student loans bloating the enrollment” for $500, Alex.

  • Ofer Imanuel

    The significance of college degree is extremely important, and is due to employers using it as a proxy to a placement / IQ test. Why not use a test instead? This is due to a 1972 supreme court decision to disallow such tests, since they have disparate effect, unless they can be proven to be directly related to the job on hand (and each job has to have a separate placement test, of course).
    The need for a degree, and the monopoly on accreditation (ruthlessly used by universities) so far has prevented much cheaper alternatives, like MOOCs, to start replacing conventional universities.

    • R_of_the_H

      An IQ test would scratch 80% minorities, 20% of whites, that why they hold on to what they have now….

  • FriendlyGoat

    In order to more properly understand this, we probably need a full-length list of the job titles of the 12,183 administrative jobs at California Polytechnic. Otherwise, it’s very hard to comprehend what such vast numbers of people could possibly be doing there.

    • R_of_the_H

      Start with the 10% farthest from the instructors, Get there attention.

      • ljgude

        Oh I have to admit I secretly dream of a Maoist solution – send them all to the countryside for reeducation.

    • Fred

      Well that certainly makes sense. The only problem is that there would be serious disagreement across the political spectrum about which functions are essential. For me, “diversity specialists” and “sensitivity trainers” are superfluous to put it charitably. I imagine those whose politics list more to port would disagree. That said, there are probably areas where agreement could be reached, but Democrats wouldn’t want to offend one of their most reliable constituencies, and Republicans have to worry about the media trumpeting a “war on higher education.” That being the case, I predict very little getting done.

      • FriendlyGoat

        First of all, I suspect half or more of these are maintenance, security, maybe food services and such functions. Without the list of job titles, we only imagine they have thousands of people managing diversity or something. We can agree the number is high, but in order to properly address or criticize them, someone will need to tell who they are.

  • ljgude

    I worked in the academic world from the late 60s to the late 80s in the US and Australia and even then it was obvious that administrators had colonized the academic world. The influence of the corporate world on the academic world had a lot to do with it. We were being evaluated under Management By Objectives regimes by the early 70s. McNamara’s success at Ford using such methods may have been legitimate but it turned into management by body count during the Vietnam war and has turned into a managerialist parasite on our institutions. I think that higher education is ripe for disintermediation and that unaccredited online learning will gain respectability and consign ridiculously overpriced educational services to the dustbin of history.

    • R_of_the_H

      Got anything from the 21st century to blame it on?

      • Fred

        Right, because everybody knows history reset on January 1, 2000.

        • R_of_the_H

          Actually everybody knows it was like 1995, when bean counting took over corporate America. Anybody close to it that is.

          • ljgude

            I think it is relevant to now because the current problem was clearly visible by the 70s. I happened to be involved in the academic world when the power of administration began to accelerate – particularly in the newer, rapidly expanding second and third line institutions and community colleges. By the late 80s I realized that the institution I was working for was being run largely for the benefit of the administrators and staff were seen as production units from whom more student hours were to be squeezed. But the cause is far older, just to be a frustrating old curmudgeon, as is demonstrated by Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy Law which “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.”

          • R_of_the_H

            Refer to previous comment, second phrase

          • ljgude

            I think it could well be that you have a hang up about something you are failing to disclose oh cryptic one. Mayhap your handle means Rajah of the Hungup?

          • R_of_the_H

            Whatever you did in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s left a scar. Did it hurt?

          • ljgude

            I don’t know where your projections on my experience from that period are coming from, and unlike you I wont make unfounded assertions about exactly why you persist in making personal attacks. So no, it didn’t hurt. The jobs I had during those decades were quite good ones and it was overall a good experience. I did many things that give me satisfaction to this day, and did not believe at the time that the excess of administrative staff I saw building up would ever reach its current proportions. It is only visible in retrospect which is why I made my original post. So I suggest you examine your own motives for persisting in your accusations and try to discern what it is in yourself that makes you apparently so certain that what I experienced during those decades has left a scar. Finally, I suspect that you may just be trying to keep this exchange going and that you derive satisfaction from seeking simply to get a reaction so this will be the last time I respond to you regardless of the provocation. Nonetheless, I look forward to a skillful provocation given your pervious performance.

          • R_of_the_H

            whew, feeling trolled?

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