The Forum | Trusteeship

If You Give an Administrator an Assistant: How Growing Administrative Staffs are Increasing College Costs

July 15, 2019

It’s no secret that American college tuition, in both the public and private sector, has skyrocketed in recent years. Inflation adjusted cost of attendance has gone from, on average, $52,982 for a four-year degree from a public university in 1989 to $104,480 for the same degree in 2016. However, what is less obvious to the public is the way in which colleges and universities are spending their money on bureaucracy to cause such a dramatic increase in price.

Universities are spending more of their budgets on adding administrative staff, rather than on educational resources and instructional staff, forcing students to endure even higher costs for education. A study conducted by the Delta Cost Project in 2010 revealed that from 1998 to 2008, private colleges in America increased instructional spending by just 22%, while administrative spending increased by 36%. Furthermore, Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist and professor at Johns Hopkins University, noted in his 2011 book The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters that from 1975 to 2005, the number of “administrators increased 85 percent, and the number of administrative staffers by a whopping 240 percent.” For clarification, college administrators oversee various academic schools and student services, while administrative staffers perform office duties and provide support to administrators. These statistics illustrate just how dramatic the increase in administrative staff has become in recent years, begging the question: What are all these administrators doing?

“Private colleges in America increased instructional spending by just 22%, while administrative spending increased by 36%

Todd Zywicki, a George Mason University law professor and co-author of “The Changing of the Guard: The Political Economy of Administrative Bloat in American Higher Education,” explains, “The interesting thing about the administrative bloat in higher education is, literally, nobody knows who all these people are or what they’re doing.” The plethora of bureaucrats causing this “administrative bloat” seem to be made up of excessive administrators and unnecessary assistants with vague or purposeless job roles. David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and author of Bullsh*t Jobs, has asserted that administrative staff are essentially “all these endless positions they’re constantly making up. . . .  I get hired as a vice provost, so obviously I need four or five assistants. . . .  they decide what the assistants will actually do later.”

Universities may not actually be “making up” administrative positions, but it is clear that administrators are beginning to overtake the higher education system. This draws thousands of dollars from the hands of America’s students and forces schools to either cut academic programs or raise tuition, rather than downsize administrative staff. Many universities are choosing to save money by hiring more adjunct professors, who are paid less than full-time tenure track faculty members. A study by the Delta Cost Project reported that between 2003 and 2013, the proportion of non-tenure track faculty at public four year universities increased from 45% to 62%. This strategy may be an easy fix for struggling colleges, but will only add to the problem in the long term by burdening faculty with unpredictable part-time work and lower pay. A weakened faculty can give more power to administrators, who are not trained to make academic and curriculum decisions, and can lead to a decline in educational standards and a loss of academic freedom. This short-sighted “solution” also hurts students, who pay unreasonable tuition prices only to be met with overworked, under experienced, and disempowered professors in return.

“Many universities are choosing to save money by hiring more adjunct professors … between 2003 and 2013, the proportion of non-tenure track faculty at public four year universities increased from 45% to 62%” 

Some argue that the increase in college administrators is necessary due to the increased number of federal and state university regulations, including affirmative action, student safety regulations, FASFA verifications, and Title IX regulations. However, it is clear that many universities have taken it too far. In an extreme case at the University of Texas–Austin, former President Bill Powers “had 17 administrators on his staff, including two ‘deputies’, an executive assistant and multiple assistants to the assistants.”

Administrative bureaucracy is a necessary and important part of higher education, provided such positions are assigned efficiently, effectively, and in moderation. Institutions must be transparent about their administrative staff and hiring practices so that only truly essential personnel are taken on. It is crucial for students and donors to begin making it clear to university leadership that gratuitous administrative staff will not be tolerated., a website created by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, is a one-of-a-kind tool that plainly lays out how institutions across America are spending their money. Students and donors can use this resource in order to identify which universities are spending their money on students and instruction, and college trustees can use the tools the website provides to address administrative bloat at their institutions. Armed with the data on college spending habits, students, families, and donors can put greater pressure on institutions to make higher education more accessible and affordable.

Shannon McWaters is a database management intern at ACTA and a rising sophomore at Florida State University. 


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