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Money In Higher Education

By Professor Doom

Me: “The two new trailers in the back are filthy, and haven’t been cleaned even once this semester.”

Administrator: “The janitor’s contract doesn’t cover those two rooms. Don’t worry, we’re hiring another janitor soon.”

--the trash in that room was extreme to the point that even the students complained.

Last time around, I documented how the massive influx in the student base didn’t lead to an increase in faculty, but did lead to a vast increase in very high paid administration. This is no surprise, since administration gets more power by hiring administrators than faculty, and to a considerable extent sets its own well as faculty salary.

Administrators also hire support staff (janitor, secretary, and the like). Like adjuncts, these too are cheap, with no constraints against hiring them in large numbers. In 1975, the ratio was 50 students for each support staff member. By 2005, the ratio was 21 students per staffer, a huge increase1 relative to the increase in size of the student base, comparable to some official faculty to student ratios. While decades ago there were much more faculty than administrators and staff, now the faculty are outnumbered.

Where’s the economy of scale in all this? Maybe it’s wrong to think a dean can service twenty faculty nearly as easily as ten. But if one janitor can clean ten rooms, shouldn’t it only take two janitors to clean twenty rooms? To put this in perspective, these numbers, or more accurately administrators, are saying “Yes, it used to take one janitor to clean everything, but now that we’ve doubled in size it takes five janitors to clean up.”

Tuition rises and rises, and it takes no effort to see that the money isn’t being spent on education. The incredible bloat in support staff is sometimes justified by saying how necessary an on-campus clinic, job advisors, stress counselors, and such are. This may be, but one staffer very much absent on campuses is a financial advisor. A financial advisor would doubtless tell students that taking on massive debt for degrees leading to insufficiently paying jobs (and that’s most degrees, considering the debt involved) would cut into revenue. While it would be acting with integrity to hire such a critically helpful person, administrators would never do such a thing. Obviously.


Please make allowances for students not showing up or being late on the first day. We don’t have the parking to accommodate all the new students.”

--administrative notice. Much like shopping malls, institutions of higher education see no need to have parking sufficient for peak hours. Again just like malls, institutions of higher education charge exorbitant fees for parking, even if no space is available. Also like malls, institutions charge their customers tens of thousands of dollars a year go to there. Oh wait, it’s not like that at all. So why is there no parking for customers that pay for the privilege and pay so much more than a mall shopper?

The weird counter-intuitive thinking of administrators is rather disturbing, especially since administration has no difficulty inflicting the usual rules of economy of scale on faculty when it comes to dealing with a great increase in the number of students. Quite often when my institutions had an influx of students, my rooms would be filled to overflowing, sometimes with more students registered than desks in the room. Administration gives me an “attaboy” to assist with the extra load...then hires more support to handle the extra paperwork from the students, and then gets a pay raise for ruling over a larger institution. My “attaboy” of course doesn’t mean anything for my paycheck.

Me, in E-mail:

To: Administrator1

Hi. I’m trying to figure out when a meeting with faculty took place last June. Was it June 4, or June 11?



From: Administrator1

CC: Administrator2

I have that information, but cannot tell you without permission from Administrator2.


Response from Administrator2, a day later:

From Administrator2

CC: Administrator1, Administrator3

Why do you want to know that information?

--It is really is amazing how many of these people are around, and how tight they can be with information. I did get the question answered, eventually, although I probably should not have wasted time going through three administrators when I could have just tracked down a faculty member on the committee.

Key to advancement as an administrator is to have and hire people under you, so it’s no real surprise that the expansion in support staff growth is so large—an administrator’s goal is always to advance, after all. Support staff is much easier to find and hire, for much lower pay, just as it is with adjuncts. For a teaching faculty member, when the student base doubles, the work of the faculty member doubles (but not his pay). For administrators, when the student base doubles, the work increases a little in theory, but this is offset by higher pay (larger institutions command higher pay) and the ability to hire more support staff to help with the load, to the point that such hires are out of scale with the increase in workload. The end result? As the student base increases, administrative work gets easier, with more pay. Could this be where much of the tuition money goes? Could this be why the goal of every institution seems only to grow, grow at any cost, grow?

The numbers above are over a thirty or more year period, but there’s evidence that the rate of administrative bloat is increasing. Between 1993 and 2007 at the leading universities in the country, the number of administrators per 100 students grew by 39%, with inflation adjusted spending going up by 61% during the same period2—inflation adjusted! Higher educational institutions have more administrators, and have more money going to each administrator as well, a trend that indeed seems to be accelerating.

Certainly, some of the new money coming in can go to new computers, new buildings, new laboratory equipment, and the like, but it’s clear that the bulk of the money is not being spent on education, instead it’s being spent on administrative and support costs. And yet, the mission statement of no institution says anything about supporting massive administrative bloat. If faculty, instead of administrator types, were in control of accreditation, they might well have issued warnings to institutions for going so far off their mission. Well functioning institutions can lose accreditation if they do not support administrative bloat.

One institution I worked at consistently lost classrooms to administrative and support offices over every semester, even as our student base more than doubled. At the time I left, about half of floor space at my institution was devoted to administrative and support staff offices (I shared my office/classroom with five other full time faculty, while administrators get far more private offices), as opposed to classrooms and laboratories, which is what one might guess would be most everything at a teaching institution. This amount of devotion to administration and support was similar at other institutions I’ve worked at, and I suspect it’s the same elsewhere.

Students are seldom told this when it’s time for yet another tuition hike, instead being told how the money is important to provide them with a “quality education.” Of course, students want a quality education, and are willing to pay for it, especially with government (or someone else’s) money…too bad it just goes to administrative support.

It’s also worthwhile to take a look at private, for-profit institutions, to see how they’ve handled their federal loan loot. Next time.

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

  1. Green, Jay P.”Administrative Bloat at American Universities: The Real Reason for High Costs in Higher Education”.





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