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Following The Money In Higher Education

By Professor Doom

Congratulation to our two new vice chancellors!

--announcement at a institution that failed to make payroll a few months earlier, not that such would prevent filling two more $100,000 a year positions, as well as have two other administrators retire with golden parachutes.

Last time around, I looked at the money going to the educators in higher education, in an attempt to explain where all the money from increased tuition and increased student base might be going. Alas, the money can’t be going there, since faculty pay has barely moved in the last decade, and the rise of minimally paid adjuncts has further lowered the costs of hiring educators.

The gushing money clearly isn’t going to the faculty, the institutional servants that actually do the teaching work, so it must be time to look at administrative pay. Presidential salaries top out at $1.8 million a year, not counting often amazing perks like limos, free houses, travel budgets, and chefs. The top is not a fair place to look, any more than it is for faculty. A simple look at median salaries of administrators shows that even a dean, among lowest of rungs for an administrator, commonly makes more than twice as much as permanent faculty. It’s more like six times as much when you consider the more representative “faculty” pay that adjuncts receive. The median for many types of dean is over $100,000, and even assistant deans regularly make over $100,0001—even a “Dean of Home Economics” (wish I were making up that title..and since when did balancing checkbooks and baking cookies become “higher education”?) makes $150,000!; virtually no administrator gets paid as minimally as a faculty member. Assistant dean…it’s curious that adjuncts get so little while even assistant administrators get so much. There’s no such thing as an “adjunct administrator,” although there should be. As you move up the administrative ladder, pay skyrockets, with medians commonly above $200,000 for a wide range of administrative positions—these are medians, so top tier pay of above $1,000,000 a year (and that’s not necessarily chief officers), while not as rare as it should be, doesn’t much affect this number.

One might justify high administrative pay due to the requirements these positions have for advanced degrees. Unfortunately, this argument fails on three levels. Faculty positions also require advanced degrees, and yet don’t get that kind of pay. Additionally, faculty actually need those degrees to demonstrate they know what they’re doing, whereas administrative degrees have no real application to the job, as I showed in detail earlier. Finally, those faculty degrees are desired by the students as they prefer to be trained by people that know what they’re doing. On the other hand, the students, the customers of the institution, have no interest whatsoever in whatever kinds of degrees possessed by the person helping them to fill out a few forms and hand them a check.

Now, perhaps these jobs are critically important to education and research (these being, supposedly, what colleges are for), and if there were only a few such administrators with vast responsibilities, these extraordinary sums for low level management positions might be reasonable. Maybe.

With administrators in control of salary levels, even if the student population doesn’t rise, administrators still manage to funnel extra money to themselves. For example, administrative spending in Michigan went up 30% in from 2005-20102. This is awesome, considering enrollments and even budgets were flat in Michigan for this period. This is one of the few places where enrollment has been flat for the last few years, but the state population dropped from the peak state population in 2004—a greater percentage of the population is going to school, but there’s less population, evening it out. In any event, the same amount of money going into the system, but more of it going to the managers.

Number of full time faculty: 43

Number of administration: 44

Number of students: 2400.

--numbers from a nearby institution, recently. This doesn’t count administrators above the institution, who are nevertheless overseeing it. If we switched the pay between faculty and the rest, the total expenses would be the same, and the institution would be run exactly as well as before. The education would be the same, too. The only difference is the educators at the educational institution would be getting the money instead of the administrators. Would that be a bad thing?

Between inflation, differing tuition costs, and varying state economies, the significance and size of administrative pay can be a little deceptive, so perhaps it’s better to look at ratios, which give a better understanding of how much more is proportionally going towards administrators as opposed to the educators at the institution.

Before looking at administration, we again first consider faculty. Faculty to student ratio has been roughly flat for decades, although I have to concede this ratio is suspect. Since this ratio is considered part of what makes an institution good (a better institution supposedly should have a lower ratio), it is heavily manipulated to make it look much lower than what it is as far as the students would be concerned. This manipulation is done in a variety of ways, from the simple (a librarian might count as faculty, lowering the ratio even if the librarian never steps foot in a classroom) to the not very subtle (all graduate students, whether they’re teaching or not, might be forced to spend time in a “study room” where they could theoretically help undergraduates, and are thus counted as faculty for this ratio), to the blatantly crass (hiring each adjunct to teach exactly one course, even more viable now with Obamacare), with too many other tricks to list here.

That said, the official statistics say it is basically flat, even though faculty hiring hasn’t jumped up much and student population has greatly increased. Go figure...yet another obvious question about higher education that never gets asked. The ratio varies from school to school, of course, and nationwide it was in the area of 14 students to 1 faculty in 20073, essentially unchanged for decades. My direct observations from my teaching and when I was in undergraduate school would put that ratio somewhat higher, and I suspect the vast majority of students in college would also say it is higher, as well. Student to faculty ratio is not the same thing as average classroom size, a statistic that is similarly misleading and manipulated.

On the other hand, administrative and support staff ratios aren’t manipulated, or at least not as much, because there’s no real benefit to doing so—it’s not considered a measure of what makes a school good, although perhaps it should be. The huge administrative pay would be far more tolerable if administrators were a rare breed. Let’s take a look and see if perhaps administrators are getting such pay because there are less of them, taking on more responsibilities:

Administrator to student ratio in 1975 was 84 students to 1 administrator…you basically needed one administrator for every four classes of that era filled with students. One might think it would be higher, considering how little of what the typical administrator does relates to students. The ratio in 2005 was even lower: 68 students per administrator. So now it’s more like there’s an administrator per every two classes of this era. To put those in easier to visualize terms, a college with 5,000 students in 1975 had 60 administrators. In 2005, that same college, assuming it only had 5,000 students, would have 74 administrators4. Same students, same material, same institution, larger classes….14 more administrators getting paid $100,000 or more a year, effectively tacking at least an extra $280 a year in tuition per student just to break even (more like $500 per student when you consider administrative benefit programs that the institution also pays for), assuming they’re only getting minimal administrative pay. Note that the increase in tuition is just for the additional administrators that weren’t necessary years ago; tuition can easily not even cover administrative pay at smaller public institutions. Have college students truly become that much more unruly, or is it the faculty? It appears there are more administrators, taking on fewer responsibilities…not exactly reasons for high pay, even with the basically bogus advanced administrative degree.

Administrators hire faculty. They do so when need be, and aren’t that reluctant—having many faculty under you is a way to advance as an administrator. It’s easier and cheaper to hire adjuncts, and so this option is taken far more often—why hire one faculty when you can hire six adjuncts for the same amount of money, getting more administrative clout and a lower student to faculty ratio too? Administrators also hire other administrators, a good idea when it comes time to lighten the administrative work load, although certainly expensive. Both the hiring of adjuncts and the hiring of extra administrators are represented in the above numbers, but there’s one more category of institutional employee to be considered: support.

Next time around, we’ll look at support, the numbers there are even more surprising.

  1.; it’s fun to visit this site every year to see how amazing the pay raises are.

  2. Jesse, David. “Database: Compare salary increases for administrators at 15 state universities.”

  3. Mark Mongomery’s posting at discusses, from an administrator’s point of view, how these ratios are manipulated.

  4. Ginsberg, Benjamin. “Administrators Ate My Tuition.” Washington Monthly. September/October 2011.



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