Students & Parents | Costs

College hiring: Helping students or padding payrolls?

Study finds that spending grew fastest for jobs that involve direct contact with students.
USA TODAY   |  February 5, 2014 by Mary Beth Marklein

Colleges and universities over the last decade have hired “an explosion of new workers” to fill administrative jobs while relying increasingly on part-time faculty and graduate students to teach students, a new report finds.

Spending grew fastest for jobs that involve direct contact with students, such as financial aid, counseling, student activities and health care.

The report contrasts with a recent string of studies, including one released last week by the non-profit American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative organization in Washington, D.C, and a 2010 analysis by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative, Phoenix-based think tank, that have blamed rising college costs on an expansion of jobs that have little to do with the education of students or discovery of knowledge.

But while some critics have suggested that the new spending has been wasted on paper-shuffling bureaucrats or overpaid senior executives, the analysis released Wednesday found that spending was driven primarily by salaries and benefits for student-services positions. Those are defined by the federal government as primarily contributing to “students’ emotional and physical well-being and to their intellectual, cultural and social development outside the context of the formal instructional program.”

Colleges “seem to be investing in jobs that involve working face-to-face with students,” says researcher Donna Desrochers, lead author of the report. “It’s not all just back-office jobs they’re creating.”

The report was released by the Delta Cost Project at the American Institutes for Research, a non-profit organization that studies issues related to college affordability. It is based on Education Department data showing employment changes at different types of colleges and universities from 1990 to 2012.

The analysis, which also documents a rise in part-time or temporary instructors alongside declines in full-time faculty hires, suggests that many of the new student-services jobs have taken over tasks that once fell to faculty, such as academic advising, career guidance and disciplinary actions.

“Investments that directly support student success are wise if they lead to improved learning and degree outcomes,” the report says.

Earlier reports contended that spending on instruction has been scaled back while spending on administrative jobs has increased. A 2010 analysis by the Goldwater Institute of nearly 200 universities, many of them public flagships that conduct research, found that between 1993 and 2007, inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student rose 61% while instructional spending per student rose 39%. A 2012 Wall Street Journal analysis of more than a decade of salary and employment data at the University of Minnesota found a similar pattern.

In 2012, Bain & Company, a Boston-based management consulting firm, urged boards and trustees to “put their collective foot down” on the growth of support and administrative costs, adding, “In no other industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this rate.”

Responses by university administrators have been mixed. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill said last year it had saved $58 million after a Bain & Company study revealed multiple layers of management on campus. More than 50% of supervisors had been managing just one to three people, the Bain study found. The University of California-Berkeley and Cornell University also have hired Bain.

Leaders of other universities have criticized published reports alleging inefficiencies.

Arizona State University President Michael Crow told The Arizona Republic that the Goldwater Institute’s methodology is flawed. University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said the Wall Street Journal story “did not report that despite stunning state disinvestment, the university is more productive than at any time in recent history.”

They argue that more administrative support is necessary because operations ranging from fund-raising to complying with federal regulations, have grown increasingly complex.

But University of Arkansas education professor Jay Greene, author of the Goldwater report, says that’s part of the problem. “It’s not unreasonable to provide counseling (or other services) to students, but the question is how much of that is what the university is supposed to be doing,” he says. “Someone has to pay for all that. Universities have lost sight of their primary mission of research and teaching. They have become non-profit conglomerates.”

The new analysis by the American Institutes for Research leaves open the question of whether the spending has gotten out of control.

“The shifting balance among these positions has played out steadily over time in favor of administrators, and it is unclear when a tipping point may be near,” the report says. “Whether this administrative growth constitutes unnecessary ‘bloat’ or is justified as part of the complexities involved in running a modern-day university remains up for debate.”


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