This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on September 30, 2015.
At long last, the reality and destructiveness of administrative bloat on America’s college campuses has come to be recognized across party and ideological lines.
Or so it would appear from last week’s essay in the left-wing magazine, The Nation. There, Michelle Chen penned a piece titled, “Why Is College So Expensive if Professors Are Paid So Little?”
To be sure, Chen’s target in her essay is not administrative bloat, per se, but, instead, the plight of adjunct college teachers, for which she recommends unionization of faculty (a project with which I disagree, but that is a subject for another article.) In addressing the phenomenon referred to as the “adjunctification” of college faculty, Chen cannot help but to focus on administrative bloat, and for the same reason that bank-robber Willie Sutton provided for his choice of vocation: “Because that’s where the money is.”
Yes, and quite a lot of money it is that has found its way to administration in the prior few decades, as Chen demonstrates. And here she comes to echo a proposition that higher-education reformers have been trumpeting for years: The excessive growth in college administrative budgets is among the most significant factors driving tuition hyperinflation (a 440 percent increase in average tuitions nationwide in the past twenty-five years) and crushing student loan debt (which now stands at $1.2 trillion—for the first time in our history, student loan debt exceeds total national credit card debt).
In her search for remedies to provide better salaries, security, and status for adjunct professors, Chen finds that “the hyperinflated price tag of college has funneled toward another aspect of the higher education system: driving funds into administrative offices.” Citing a report from the SEIU, she detects a “pattern ‘reflected in increases in the numbers of administrative positions, increase in those salaries, and increases in the percentage of college budgets going to these [administrative] functions.’” Citing numbers reminiscent of Benjamin Ginsberg’s 2011 study, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, Chen notes that, a quarter-century ago, American campuses housed “twice as many faculty as administrators on average.” But today, “the ratio is roughly equal.”
From where has all the money come to fund this unprecedented growth in administration? First and foremost, it has come from students, their parents, and state and federal taxpayers. At the same time, the administrators’ new feast has been prepared on the backs of hungry faculty: “Just 20 percent of the teaching workforce in 2013 were permanent of tenure track. About half worked part-time or as adjuncts, often stitching together temporary gigs at different institutions.” In a Washington Monthly essay spinning off of his book, Ginsberg adds, “College administrations frequently tout the fiscal advantages of using part-time, ‘adjunct’ faculty to teach courses. They fail, however, to apply the same logic to their own ranks. Over the past thirty years, the percentage of faculty members who are hired on a part-time basis has increased so dramatically that today almost half of the nation’s professors work only part-time. And yet the percentage of administrators who are part-time employees has fallen during the same time period.”
So, the bottom line is this: In order to fund rising college administrative budgets, not only are students and taxpayers paying more, but many on the faculty are receiving less—through being “adjunctified.” Chen points to the illustrative case of the California State University System, which, between 2004 and 2013, increased its full-time teaching staff eight percent, “but the population of full-time-equivalent students simultaneously jumped by 20 percent.” The costs and effects of burgeoning administrative budgets are more than financial. Students are losing the opportunity to learn under a full-time professor, and faculty are losing salary, security, and a say in their university’s affairs through being relegated to part-time status.
Chen states the problem well. However, in her quest to advance her case for unionizing faculty, she implies but then loses sight of the better solution before her eyes: It is time to make across-the-board cuts in university administrative budgets and then return those funds to their proper focus—teaching and learning. With more money available for teaching, universities would not need to rely as much on adjuncts as they do presently. This would clearly be a boon to student learning as well as to faculty remuneration and independence.
Another measure that would improve the situation would be to have more full-time college professors teach more classes. In the past half-century, American universities at all levels of selectivity have increasingly set their sights on the “Research University Model” exemplified by Harvard (which itself copied this model from the German universities in the latter part of the nineteenth century). As a result, the most productive researchers teach fewer classes as a “reward” for their scholarly excellence. While this can be justified in a number of cases, the problem that has developed is that too many lower-tier universities, in their quest to become Harvard, have lowered the average teaching load generally so that they can be more attractive to talented prospective faculty researchers whom they seek to recruit to their campuses. As a former university professor and administrator, it has been my experience that roughly half of the faculty, once having received tenure, do little by way of subsequent publications to justify a lower course load. Were university leaders to make these underperforming researchers teach, say, one more course per semester, this too would enhance the student-learning experience and lessen the reliance on adjuncts. Moreover, these increases in teaching productivity would help to bring tuition prices down.
Finally, aside from concern over the effects of tuition hyperinflation on their students and adjunct faculty, universities should have another motivation for shrinking administrative bloat—their own preservation. Last Friday, Moody’s Investor Service released a report forecasting that a growing number of small private universities will be forced to close in the coming years, due to financial instability. And Moody’s does not spare public college and universities in its prediction of trouble down the road. Although political considerations often dictate that public universities will be less likely to close than private ones, Moody’s predicts that failing public institutions will be forced to merge with larger state systems.
Before the bankruptcy notices begin to arrive at their doors, many American colleges and universities need to look at where they can cut excess spending and pass these savings on to their students and faculty.
A good place to start would be campus administrative budgets.