Critics say public universities are spending too much outside the classroom

By: - January 23, 2024 6:00 am

People walk on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Some students and critics are questioning the amount of money state universities spend on administrative costs. (Eros Hoagland/Getty Images)

Spending on administrative expenses at U.S. public universities has outpaced spending on academic roles in recent years, leading some students and alumni to question how wisely schools are allocating student tuition money and scarce state dollars.

A conservative-leaning group that tracks higher education dollars found that administrative spending — which it defines as including such things as executive management, legal departments, fiscal operations, public relations and development offices — increased by 6.3% from 2016 to 2021, from $3,549 per full-time equivalent student in 2016 to $3,771 in 2021.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which compiled the numbers, says that contrasts with instructional spending — including professors, other instructors and deans — over the same period, which fell 4.7% from $14,352 in 2016 to $13,685 in 2021 per full-time equivalent student, the latest year the group studied. The group, which used figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, says it is “dedicated to promoting academic excellence, academic freedom, and accountability.”

Critics say schools are spending too much on legal fees, branding and other administrative costs at the expense of instruction. Some also slam spending on efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, known as DEI, and student amenities such as swimming pools and gyms. However, the ACTA report shows that per capita spending on student services, or expenses to promote the emotional and physical well-being of students outside the classroom, and which can include DEI, actually declined from 2016-2021.

Donna Desrochers, senior associate with the higher education consulting firm rpk GROUP, said in an interview that there is “no question that we’ve seen a rise in the number of administrators on college campuses.”

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She said institutions have become more complex, with new federal reporting requirements and “increasing expectations around student services and types of staff to provide those services — things like counseling and advising that were previously provided by faculty.”

“I think some of the increase we’ve seen over time is legitimate.” Still, she said, universities need to closely scrutinize their spending.

Conservatives such as Richard Vedder, emeritus professor of economics at Ohio University and a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a libertarian think tank, point to DEI programs as an example of the sort of non-instructional spending that has increased in recent years.

“Every place in the country was expanding DEI immensely over the past few years,” he said in an interview. “Regardless of whether that was good or bad, it was very costly.”

Another factor, he said, is that running universities is increasingly complicated, and university officials “try to buy some protections against being accused of making bad decisions. They hire more administrators so if something goes wrong, they can blame it on someone else. It’s job protection for administrators.”

DEI defenders, however, say new DEI jobs have yielded real benefits.

“Schools that have DEI programs turn out graduates that are better prepared,” said Erica Licht, research projects director at the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project at Harvard University. “Students at schools with diversity programs, those particularly from marginalized communities, perform better academically and graduate at a higher rate. Faculty with DEI programs stay at their jobs longer and are more satisfied with their work.”

Nevertheless, Licht said, spending on DEI is likely to decline as opposition to it spreads in Republican-led states. In the past two years, state lawmakers have introduced 49 bills in 23 states to prohibit colleges and universities from having DEI programs, according to her group’s count.

Complex institutions

Armand Alacbay, senior vice president of strategy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said that new federal and state rules and reporting requirements are part of the problem. Alacbay said schools should be judged on “student learning outcomes” such as how many graduate, and how long it takes them to do it.

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“It’s the product that’s the most important thing, above and beyond the branding effort. Institutions maybe have lost sight of that goal,” he said.

Instead of just “going to football games and having fancy dinners,” university boards of directors should be more hands-on when it comes to scrutinizing spending, he added. Alacbay is a member of the board of visitors — akin to a board of trustees — for George Mason University, a public university in Virginia, where he attended law school.

“The growth in position types … over the past 10 years has come from highly compensated administrators … not support staff, he said. “Our No. 1 recommendation is that the responsibility to stem the tide falls on governing boards, boards of trustees.”

Michael Delucchi, a retired University of Hawaii professor of sociology, was one of the authors of a 2021 study on growing university bureaucracies. In an interview, Delucchi said universities hire “compliance officers” and “admission specialists” because they can fund those positions. He added that many schools have the attitude that, “if Yale did something and hired someone, then we need to.”

State variations

Among public four-year universities, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni survey found, Oklahoma had the lowest per-student administrative cost at $1,970. Hawaii was next at $2,230.

On the other end of the spectrum, Wyoming, with just one public university, topped the spending at $7,830 per student, followed by Alaska at $6,224. Small systems have higher per capita administrative costs because they don’t benefit from economies of scale; looking at schools in states with midsize university systems is more instructive, experts say.

Tennessee, with nine public four-year universities, had administrative costs at $2,450 per student, while New Jersey, with 13 campuses, averaged $4,982.

In Tennessee, the legislature passed and Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill last year prohibiting professors from promoting “divisive concepts,” in what sponsors said was an attack on DEI. Tennessee Republican state Sen. Joey Hensley said in an interview the administrative cost of DEI is a “big issue” and asserted the university was spending millions on it.

In an email to Stateline, spokesperson Tiffany Utsman Carpenter said she could not directly address how much the university spends on DEI, but noted that University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd, in a speech in June, emphasized giving greater access to all Tennesseans and “fostering an environment conducive for learning and free expression that meets the needs of our students, faculty and staff.”

One major state system has escaped the kind of growth that critics are complaining about.

Harrington Shaw, an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argued that costs for public university students in his state could be lowered if the system reduced what he called “administrative bloat.”

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In a piece for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a conservative think tank, Shaw calculated that the ratio of administrators to professors, associate professors and assistant professors is 1.29 — “129 campus bureaucrats for every 100 actual teachers.” Shaw, an intern at the think tank, quoted economist Vedder and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in his essay.

In an interview, Shaw said UNC has done a good job keeping tuition down, but argued the system has “created all these extraneous programs” such as student amenities, athletic facilities, expensive dorms and “a lot of other initiatives some people think are a good thing, but do add cost, like mental health resources, and diversity, equity and inclusion.”

UNC system spokesperson Jane Stancill, in an email, did not directly address Shaw’s calculations, but noted that the UNC system has increased enrollment by 9% since 2014, and “it stands to reason that any growing university would add faculty and staff to accommodate additional student demand.”

“Professional staff are vital to our mission of teaching, research and public service, and many of them work directly with students to help them succeed, including academic advisors, career counselors and financial aid experts,” she wrote.

She also pointed out that the UNC system has held tuition flat for eight years and features “among the lowest student costs in the country.”

Indeed, the per-student cost of administration at all branches of UNC essentially stayed flat, from $3,549 in 2016 to $3,504 in 2021, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

The return on investment for students, Stancill added, amounts to about half a million dollars more in median lifetime earnings for undergraduates compared with those without college degrees.

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International. She also has worked as a freelancer for the Washington Post, the Fiscal Times, Governing, Kiplinger and AARP Bulletin

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