As the average price tag of a college education continues to rise, many have criticized colleges for “administrative bloat” as one of the potential culprits. However, while a surface level analysis might equate increased spending on administrative positions with higher student attendance costs, experts have suggested that this may not be the case.
Administrative bloat defined
In recent years, the term “administrative bloat” has been a frequent topic of op-eds, blog posts, and critiques. In its simplest form, as defined by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), it refers to “the increase in spending on administrators.”
When looking at the numbers on the subject at a glance, this correlation between increasing tuition costs and a rise in the number of administrators schools are hiring does not seem unwarranted.
According to federal data, during the period right before the recession to 2014, staff members at offices overseeing a system of campuses increased by almost four percent. At the same time, the number of employees in managerial, executive and administrative positions increased by 15 percent between 2007 and 2014.
Furthermore, between 2003 to 2013, many four-year institutions spent more on administration, student services and academic support than they did on instruction, according to the Delta Cost Project.
What has led to these administrative expansions?
While it’s undeniable that growth in the number of professional staff members colleges and universities are hiring has taken place, this growth has not been random. Experts identified a variety of factors that have contributed to this expansion.
As schools have begun enrolling more diverse student bodies, academic and social support services to serve these new student demographics adequately, have emerged as well.
“As more lower-income, first generation, racial and ethnic minority students come to campus, they often need additional services to succeed in college,” Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, told The College Post.
At a time when social justice movements continue to manifest on college campuses, forcing issues like sexual assault and race relations onto the radar of both students and administrators, new staff positions have also been created to meet student demands.
“In many cases, these colleges don’t really have a choice given student protests,” Kelchen said. “If students do not get some of the services that people are demanding, they’ll try to shut down the college.”
Structural changes at the University of Missouri at Columbia following protests regarding racial relations on campus in the fall of 2015 exemplify the power of these student demands. In response, the university hired Kevin McDonald as its first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer in 2016.
Coupled with meeting staffing requirements from both state and federal government mandates, addressing areas like Title IX, financial aid and diversity and inclusion, the appointment of individuals to staff these divisions has prompted colleges across the nation to spend approximately $27 billion on compliance measures each year.
Finally, at many colleges and universities, new administrative staff hires have taken over some of the more bureaucratic tasks that used to fall on the shoulders of faculty.
“If you think back 50 or 100 years ago, faculty members did all of these jobs,” David Attis, managing director of strategic research for EAB, told The College Post. “Now I think faculty members feel that their time is better spent educating students and doing scholarly research.”
Is administrative bloat necessarily a bad thing?
In the past, a handful of academics such as Benjamin Ginsburg, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, have been particularly critical of administrative bloat, describing colleges and universities as “filled with armies of functionaries—vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants—who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.”
These critics argue that as both college tuition prices and national student loan debt have gone up, a large portion of these funds has simultaneously gone towards higher salaries for college bureaucrats.
However, both Kelchen and Attis noted that the trend of administrative bloat might not warrant the negative connotations commonly associated with it, and in fact, may benefit campus communities in a variety of ways.
In past critiques of administrative bloat, a frequently cited argument is that the additional positions schools are creating are extremely high-paying ones, such as vice presidents and deans. This type of growth has been largely exaggerated.
“The largest growth in administrators is in lower paid, lower to mid-level staff members. Not high-level administrators,” Kelchen said. “Colleges get a lot of grief about the number of assistant vice presidents and associates that they have, but that growth is relatively modest compared to the frontline staff members, lower-level administrators who work more directly with students.”
Additionally, while these larger numbers of lower-paying positions have a more significant budget impact than adding one new vice president, the tangible benefits students receive from these additional personnel can justify the costs.
“Those student success advisors, mental health advisors, they make less money per person, but there can be more of them, and so they have a larger cost associated,” Attis said. “So many people say they’re justified because of the benefits the campus is providing.”
Attis added that the creation of administrative positions to address social justice movements and student demands is also “one of the ways that universities signal that something is important to them,” and an avenue through which to achieve tangible institutional progress.
“We’ve seen that there are areas like student success, graduation rates, where in a sense everyone is responsible for it, but without having a central person whose day-to-day job is to make sure that happens, they don’t make much progress,” Attis said. “So … having a person with that title who spends their day organizing all of that can help people make improvements in those areas.”
Finally, distinguishing between the “cost of delivering an education with the costs that students pay to attend a college or university” is critical in conversations about administrative bloat, Attis said.
While many people believe that if a university spends more, students will automatically pay more, other factors such as state funding allocations and endowment subsidies may influence fluctuations in tuition more substantially.
“I think the difference in what students pay and what it costs to educate them is really critical in this conversation,” Attis said. “Administrative bloat doesn’t necessarily mean that students pay more. There are other factors that make a bigger impact on what students actually pay, and therefore, on affordability.”
Remaining qualms about administrative bloat
Despite the positive return on investment that additional administrators can have on student achievement outcomes, Kelchen said schools should continue to question what portion of their student bodies will benefit from staff expansions.
“Some of these, like academic advising and spending on students’ extracurricular activities, research shows that those do tend to improve student outcomes,” Kelchen said. “But I do worry about colleges creating administrative positions because students are requesting services that they may not all need.”
As the traditional service component of faculty jobs like advising and counseling has shifted to administrators, allowing faculty to devote more time to teaching and research, some faculty worry that their stake in the operation of their institution hangs in the balance.
“Faculty don’t want to lose control of the university,” Attis said. “They sometimes fear that they don’t make all of the decisions anymore and that’s why shared governance is so important where faculty might not be holding those administrative positions, but they’re still involved in the governance process.”
Although this misunderstanding between faculty and administrators is one potential drawback to administrative bloat, overall, Kelchen said critics should think twice before bashing this recent trend.
“I see a concern about whether faculty know what administrators are doing and vice-versa, but at the end of the day, what I care about is students getting the resources they need to do well in college,” Kelchen said. “As someone who teaches administrators, I can see what they’re doing, and in most cases, they’re doing good valuable work. Even if they’re considered bloat by many people.”