Do administrator salaries drive up the cost of public university tuition?

By Paige Ladisic and Parth Majmudar

UNC Media Hub


Tuition checks are getting bigger every year across the United States. Everyone knows it, and most millennials are living it.


It might be easy to blame rising tuition costs for something else that’s rising at almost every American university — the number of highly-paid administrators on the public payroll.


But the research is inconclusive. Some experts blame the increasing number of administrators on the insanely high cost of tuition. Others say it’s athletics departments or faculty salaries. Some say the extremely high cost is due to an increase in administrators, but it’s in order to provide students with what they need.


Added value?


At UNC, you hear a little bit of everything.


Since 2000, in-state tuition at UNC has increased 201 percent and out-of-state tuition has increased 203 percent. And among colleges and universities in the United States, UNC isn’t special.


But students aren’t really getting any added value as they spend an all-time high on college tuition, according to a study released by the Los Angeles Times in 2010. That study cites the rising cost of athletics programs, salary increases for tenured professors and a massive increase in the number of administrators, which many in the higher education circles call “administrative bloat.”


“Since 1980, the number of administrators per student at colleges has about doubled; on most campuses their numbers now match the number of faculty,” the study reads. “Here are some of their titles: senior specialist of assessment; director for learning communities; assistant dean of students for substance education; director of knowledge access services.”


But Jim Gregory, a UNC spokesperson, wrote in an email that administrators do a lot of important work for the University and are paid accordingly.


“Senior administrators are compensated for the level of responsibility they have as well as the number of positions they oversee,” he wrote. “Salaries of administrators at UNC-Chapel Hill fall short of what many executives make at comparably large ($4 billion) companies.”


“The point is, university administrators aren’t in it for the money. They have the same passion as faculty and staff — to ensure the best education possible for all students.”


Forgotten costs


“A university is a complex organization — much more than many students see on a day-to-day basis — requiring people to run human resources, finance, facilities maintenance, security, development, research, legal, communications, student affairs, counseling and many more functions that require senior administrative oversight,” Gregory wrote.


Administrators are also needed at universities when scandal erupts. Universities need lawyers to assist with lawsuits and public records, PR professionals to manage their image and leaders to oversee departments to prevent further or future wrongdoing.


For example, at UNC, a Vice Chancellor of Communications and Public Affairs was brought on to “assist” with the University’s PR in the aftermath of the academic-athletic scandal to the tune of $324,000 a year.


And Gregory also notes that state and federal laws and regulations lead to an increase in administrators at public universities — for example, in order to stay in compliance with Title IX, positions have been created to manage those issues.


“As universities have been required to provide additional services and monitor additional requirements per state and federal guidelines, more positions have been created,” he wrote. “Administrators must, for example, address continually changing compliance related issues like Title IX, accreditation, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and many others.”


‘Administrative bloat’


In the past 15 years, research and data have shown that administrative bloat is happening at universities across the country — regardless of how that benefits students. A report released by the Delta Cost Project in 2014 shows that new administrator positions alone contributed to a 28 percent growth in the number of people working in higher education.


According to a Chronicle of Higher Education article about the report, “The number of full-time faculty and staff members per professional or managerial administrator has declined 40 percent, to around 2.5 to 1.”


And that ratio is affecting campuses across the country and at UNC.


In November 2015, the UNC-system Board of Governors voted to give 12 UNC-system chancellors raises that ranged from $17,000 to $70,000. The director of athletics at UNC has seen a 243 percent increase in salary between 2000 and 2015. But top faculty are often poached from UNC with higher paying positions elsewhere.


“The expansion of high-paid administrator positions, and the rapid increase of top administrative salaries is having a negative impact on morale on our campus and in the UNC system,” said geography professor Altha Cravey in a statement. Cravey is an active voice on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus on a variety of issues involving the Board of Governors and the Board of Trustees.


Vishal Reddy, who was the co-president of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Campus Y and a member of independent student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel’s editorial board from 2015-16, said he believes the University is trying to respond to students’ needs with the number of administrators it has — but in his eyes, they’re not as valuable to students as their salaries would suggest.


“The bureaucracy is pretty bloated,” Reddy said.


The Daily Tar Heel’s editorial board often voiced concerns about increasing administrator salaries or hiring new administrators, instead of funding programs for low-income students, poorly-paid graduate students or faculty and staff.


Reddy wants to see more of UNC’s money going toward the rising cost of tuition or improving education instead of to bonuses or large salary packages for administrators.


Gregory counters that as universities grow larger, they must increase services and provide more to the students, not to mention keep up with the administrative work that grows as more students attend.


“Some observers — both inside and outside the industry — have cited an ever-expanding bureaucracy as one cost driver, while other observers have said that staff growth merely reflects the new things colleges do and the new roles they are expected to perform,” Scott Carlson writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Whatever it is that’s driving the increase in administrators, Reddy said he’s concerned that it’s a sign of a public university going down a different path.


“As the University builds up the bureaucracy, it becomes more private.”


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