What you pay for higher education

Posted on June 8, 2020


I am going to make some suggestions on how UA, and many universities for that matter, can meet the financial and medical crises produced by the Corona virus pandemic and accompanying crashes all along the economic scale, from the Stock Market’s erratic behavior or perhaps to the forced bankruptcy of your local hair dresser.

I am not picking on UA particularly, but it’s a big university in our community and a good example of a phenomenon we may call a bloated bureaucracy across the academic world. Let’s start out with the administration at most universities since that solution—reduce the numbers of administrators—jumps out at one studying solutions.

Did you know that the administration of colleges and universities has over the past generation, from let’s say the 1970s and 1980s, to today, doubled and tripled compared to the number of teaching faculty?

As noted in the HuffPost, “the number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students or faculty, according to an analysis of federal figures.”[1]

This disproportionate increase among university administrators and staffers who neither teach nor conduct research has created a huge division between those who teach and research and those who are employed by universities and do neither. Where have most of the almost annual increases in tuition and fees gone? You guessed it: not faculty but the bureaucrats.

Before continuing let me make one thing absolutely clear. We need an administration to run universities, from the maintenance guys riding the lawn mowers to the President. But as one senior researcher of this phenomenon, Andrew Gillen, noted “this is a mind-boggling amount of money per student that’s being spent on administration. It raises a question of priorities.” And by that he clearly means: is a university a business, or a place of education?

Furthermore, universities “have substantially shifted classroom teaching duties from full-time faculty to less-expensive part-time adjunct faculty and teaching assistants, the figures show.” This is all done “to try and cut costs…[and] part-time faculty and teaching assistants now account for half of instructional staffs at colleges and universities up from one-third in 1987.” I really don’t need the figures to attest to this trend.

When I came to UA in 1972 virtually all the History faculty were tenured and tenure track. When I retired in 2013, at least twenty to twenty-five adjunct, part-time faculty were teaching. They are cheap (few benefits involved), one-year appointments, and administrators can boast of keeping costs in check, but it is difficult to build world class programs with one-year appointments. You save money, but students get short-changed and programmatic growth, research and development all are stymied by the adjunct culture.

In this same period, “the number of administrators and professional staff … more than doubled…a rate of increase more than twice as fast as the growth n the number of students.” Tuition has also almost doubled “in inflation-adjusted dollars at four-year private, nonprofit universities and colleges, according to the College Board [and]  costs have also nearly tripled at public four-year universities—a higher price rise than for any other sector of the economy in that period, including healthcare.”

And all university presidents claim they are working hard to contain costs, to which Richard Vedder, an economist and director of the Center for College Afffordability and Productivity says, “It’s a lie…I wouldn’t buy a used car from a university president…They’ll say, ‘We’re making moves to cut costs,’ and mention something about energy-efficient lightbulbs, and ignore the new assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provost they just hired.”

So, two questions arise that begs answers: why all this increase in administrators and bureaucrats so blatantly over the number of faculty and students; and what to do about it?

The answer to the first question is that “universities and university associations blame the increased hiring on such things as government regulations and demands from students and their families—including students who arrive unprepared for college-level work—for such services as remedial education, advising, and mental-health counseling.” This includes diversity, equity and inclusion expenses.

Significant expenses have expanded to keep students in and help them graduate. But, some point out that the “doubling of administrative and professional staffs doesn’t seem to have improved universities’ performance. Since 2002, the proportion of four-year bachelor’s degree-seeking students who graduate within even six years, for instance, has barely inched up, from 55 percent to 58 percent, U.S. Department of Education figures show.”

Lest the Chancellor’s office administering the UA system feel too smug, “there’s also been a massive hiring boom in central offices of public university systems and universities with more than one campus, according to the figures. The number of employees in central system offices has increased six-fold since 1987…”

Centralization has been promoted as a way to reduce costs, but it hasn’t.

“It’s almost Orwellian,” said Vedder. “They’ll say, ‘We’ll save money if we centralize.’ Then they hire a provost or associate provost or an assistant business manager in charge of shared services, and then that person hires an assistant, and you end up with more people than you started with.”[2]

So, what to do? Administrators themselves will have to come up with answers on the bloated administrations that have become common in higher education. I know a bit about faculty and students and I have two suggestion in those areas: downgrade diversity, equity and inclusion and restore excellence and individual responsibility as our standards; and, two, rethink what is truly fundamental and important in higher education and start by establishing an Alpha College (described in earlier Port Rails) as a model. Use the funds created as you strip down the extraneous administrative accretions of the past half century.

Many have argued that higher education is like big business. So, apply the standards of successful big—or little for that matter—businesses. Is it profits? Then what is the comparable measure in higher education?

BTW, in 1912, when George H. Denny was hired as president, there were 562 students enrolled and President Denny, the sole administrator, had one secretary, and the only phone on campus.

Published as “What you pay for in higher education” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday June 7, 2020.

[1] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/higher-ed-administrators-growth_n_4738584

[2] This Op-ed was prepared in part by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news center based at Boston University and WGBH Radio/TV.