Wednesday, October 16, 2013

More Following of the money in Higher Education

More Following the Money in Higher Education

By Professor Doom



Me: “The two new trailers in the back are filthy, and haven’t been cleaned even once this semester.”

Administrator: “The janitor’s contract doesn’t cover those two rooms. Don’t worry, we’re hiring another janitor soon.”

--the trash in that room was extreme to the point that even the students complained.


     Last time around, I documented how the massive influx in the student base didn’t lead to an increase in faculty, but did lead to a vast increase in very high paid administration. This is no surprise, since administration gets more power by hiring administrators than faculty, and to a considerable extent sets its own well as faculty salary.

     Administrators also hire support staff (janitor, secretary, and the like). Like adjuncts, these too are cheap, with no constraints against hiring them in large numbers. In 1975, the ratio was 50 students for each support staff member. By 2005, the ratio was 21 students per staffer, a huge increase1 relative to the increase in size of the student base, comparable to some official faculty to student ratios.   While decades ago there were much more faculty than administrators and staff, now the faculty are outnumbered.

     Where’s the economy of scale in all this? Maybe it’s wrong to think a dean can service twenty faculty nearly as easily as ten. But if one janitor can clean ten rooms, shouldn’t it only take two janitors to clean twenty rooms? To put this in perspective, these numbers, or more accurately administrators, are saying “Yes, it used to take one janitor to clean everything, but now that we’ve doubled in size it takes five janitors to clean up.”

     Tuition rises and rises, and it takes no effort to see that the money isn’t being spent on education. The incredible bloat in support staff is sometimes justified by saying how necessary an on-campus clinic, job advisors, stress counselors, and such are. This may be, but one staffer very much absent on campuses is a financial advisor. A financial advisor would doubtless tell students that taking on massive debt for degrees leading to insufficiently paying jobs (and that’s most degrees, considering the debt involved) would cut into revenue. While it would be acting with integrity to hire such a critically helpful person, administrators would never do such a thing. Obviously.


“Please make allowances for students not showing up or being late on the first day. We don’t have the parking to accommodate all the new students.”

--administrative notice. Much like shopping malls, institutions of higher education see no need to have parking sufficient for peak hours. Again just like malls, institutions of higher education charge exorbitant fees for parking, even if no space is available. Also like malls, institutions charge their customers tens of thousands of dollars a year go to there. Oh wait, it’s not like that at all. So why is there no parking for customers that pay for the privilege and pay so much more than a mall shopper?


     The weird counter-intuitive thinking of administrators is rather disturbing, especially since administration has no difficulty inflicting the usual rules of economy of scale on faculty when it comes to dealing with a great increase in the number of students. Quite often when my institutions had an influx of students, my rooms would be filled to overflowing, sometimes with more students registered than desks in the room. Administration gives me an “attaboy” to assist with the extra load...then hires more support to handle the extra paperwork from the students, and then gets a pay raise for ruling over a larger institution. My “attaboy” of course doesn’t mean anything for my paycheck.


Me, in E-mail:


To: Administrator1

Hi. I’m trying to figure out when a meeting with faculty took place last June. Was it June 4, or June 11?



From: Administrator1

CC: Administrator2

I have that information, but cannot tell you without permission from Administrator2.


Response from Administrator2, a day later:

From Administrator2

CC: Administrator1, Administrator3

Why do you want to know that information?


--It is really is amazing how many of these people are around, and how tight they can be with information. I did get the question answered, eventually, although I probably should not have wasted time going through three administrators when I could have just tracked down a faculty member on the committee.


     Key to advancement as an administrator is to have and hire people under you, so it’s no real surprise that the expansion in support staff growth is so large—an administrator’s goal is always to advance, after all. Support staff is much easier to find and hire, for much lower pay, just as it is with adjuncts. For a teaching faculty member, when the student base doubles, the work of the faculty member doubles (but not his pay). For administrators, when the student base doubles, the work increases a little in theory, but this is offset by higher pay (larger institutions command higher pay) and the ability to hire more support staff to help with the load, to the point that such hires are out of scale with the increase in workload. The end result? As the student base increases, administrative work gets easier, with more pay. Could this be where much of the tuition money goes? Could this be why the goal of every institution seems only to grow, grow at any cost, grow?

     The numbers above are over a thirty or more year period, but there’s evidence that the rate of administrative bloat is increasing. Between 1993 and 2007 at the leading universities in the country, the number of administrators per 100 students grew by 39%, with inflation adjusted spending going up by 61% during the same period2—inflation adjusted! Higher educational institutions have more administrators, and have more money going to each administrator as well, a trend that indeed seems to be accelerating.

     Certainly, some of the new money coming in can go to new computers, new buildings, new laboratory equipment, and the like, but it’s clear that the bulk of the money is not being spent on education, instead it’s being spent on administrative and support costs. And yet, the mission statement of no institution says anything about supporting massive administrative bloat. If faculty, instead of administrator types, were in control of accreditation, they might well have issued warnings to institutions for going so far off their mission. Well functioning institutions can lose accreditation if they do not support administrative bloat.

      One institution I worked at consistently lost classrooms to administrative and support offices over every semester, even as our student base more than doubled. At the time I left, about half of floor space at my institution was devoted to administrative and support staff offices (I shared my office/classroom with five other full time faculty, while administrators get far more private offices), as opposed to classrooms and laboratories, which is what one might guess would be most everything at a teaching institution. This amount of devotion to administration and support was similar at other institutions I’ve worked at, and I suspect it’s the same elsewhere.

     Students are seldom told this when it’s time for yet another tuition hike, instead being told how the money is important to provide them with a “quality education.” Of course, students want a quality education, and are willing to pay for it, especially with government (or someone else’s) money…too bad it just goes to administrative support.

     It’s also worthwhile to take a look at private, for-profit institutions, to see how they’ve handled their federal loan loot. Next time.



1)      Ginsberg, Benjamin. “Administrators Ate My Tuition.” Washington Monthly. September/October 2011.


2)      Green, Jay P.”Administrative Bloat at American Universities: The Real Reason for High Costs in Higher Education”.





  1. Hi, it's your fan from Australia. The psychology student.

    I wasn't expecting you to have kept up this pace of writing. It looks like you could quite easily compile these blog posts in to a book.

    I have noticed that your articles have lost a lot of the humour you regularly sprinkled your earlier posts with. Now when I read an article I'm just left feeling depressed. You really do have a messed up tertiary education system over there!

    It can't just be due to the Federal government's largesse though. A lot of other countries pump money into their university sectors and don't seem to be suffering to the extent that the USA is. In Australia, universities also get massive donations from the private sector. One such donation ($65million) just made headlines for the largest act of philanthropy in the history of our nation. So in our case, universities have a huge amount of 'free' money, yet nowhere near the level of corruption you are describing in the USA. This would suggest that easy money is not the cause of the problem.

    I would suggest that the USA is experiencing a collapse in moral values. It would seem that people in your country are adopting a hyper individualistic attitude towards life. Basically, it seems like it's every man for himself, with no regard for the consequences. This administrative behemoth you're describing sounds like a monster that only wishes to expand in order to consume an ever larger piece of the pie. Furthermore, the lack of intelligence of the individual administrators means that the monster is essentially like a dumb animal. It has no ability to see that it's selfish actions are causing suffering to others.

    For whatever reason, your system of higher learning has been totally crippled by ignorance. From the top to the bottom there is total ignorance. The ignorant administrators are catering to the masses of ignorant students. It seems that unless some intelligence is introduced into the system it will only get worse.

    The question I've been asking myself is, how did the ignorance become so pervading? If you could work that out then you could begin to determine how to reverse it. My hunch is that it is simply a result of a general apathy amongst the populace. People seem to be less interested in working, striving, studying, and getting involved with their communities. As such, they make no effort to raise their awareness and simply leave the hard stuff up to other people. And in this case, those other people just happen to be ignorant college administrators.

    I honestly, cannot blame the administrators for your situation. They have simply been allowed to exist by the government that has been elected by the majority of the people in your country. The only way to rectify the situation is to address the ignorance that seems to have spread throughout your land. Why have people elected a government that facilitates this corruption? Why indeed?

    1. Wow, you cover a lot of ground in that comment. I'll try to answer as best I can:

      Many of these essays are excerpts from a book I wrote, "Why Johnny Can't Read, Write, or Do 'Rithmetic Even With A College Degree", which covers the entirety of what happened to higher education; I'll probably be done mining it by the end of the year. I just couldn't get a publisher to give me the time of day on it, and felt I would look a little too mercenary if I tried to sell it on my blog.

      I'll try to be funnier...but man, sometimes it's tough to laugh at what's going on. :P

      I concede it's not the largesse; no one thing is responsible, though tying that largesse to accreditation has warped things quite a bit (the next few essays will look at that a little). Don't be so quick to give Australia a free pass, that blog you sent me, with all the references to the Looneyversity, seems to have a different opinion.

      I'm reluctant to say it's a collapse in moral values here, but certainly it could be a factor. Administrators aren't responsible for the collapse, in the same sense that spiders are responsible for when they suck the juices from small insects. A big part of what happened is faculty brought in administrators to do the administration; it's always a risk when you bring in mercenaries, they can end up taking over.

      Some institutions still don't use mercenary admin, instead doing it the "old way", where faculty took over admin positions, in addition to keeping their old positions. MOST admin positions really are part-time, which is another factor in full-time mercenary admin: they have to come up with busywork to justify their position.

      Unfortunately, the "best practices" scam ripples across education. The way how admin make decisions is "best practices", which really means just doing what everyone else is doing. This doesn't simply annihilate the possibility of reform (since nobody can do anything "new" like act with integrity), it also plays a big part in skyrocketing admin salaries. Best practices says a Dean makes 100k, the Provost, making 120k, hires the dean for that. Best practices says the Provost makes 30% more than the Dean, so he goes to the Chancellor and asks for a raise, getting it because of "best practices"...the Chancellor then goes to the board.

      It really is that stupid.

      As far as why we've elected such a corrupt government? Well, we only get two choices. Two elections ago, "the people" got to decide which Skull and Bones member would be president. Last election, it was between a guy who promised more war and excessive spending, and a guy that promised excessive spending and more war. The demise of the democratic (sic) system is perhaps for another blog.

  2. Hey, Agora is on Netflix, seems like you mentioned it at some point...just started, looks good so far.

  3. Some of that bloat is a result of administrators who don't know what they're doing.

    A number of years ago, the institution I used to teach at obtained a copy of a well-known administrative software program. It took quite a while to install it and that's when the headaches began. It didn't work properly from the start, but that's often the case when installing software.

    However, as time went on, the computing systems office began allocating more people to getting it running. Along with the number of people, the amount of office space increased as well. First it was an on-campus trailer or two. Then it was a classroom, one which had been opened a year or two earlier. For years, there had been a chronic shortage of space in which we could teach courses and it became so bad that lectures were often held in the morning an hour before the place officially opened for the day's business. That meant that some of the "relief" space was given over to the software behemoth and the staff that were working on it.

    It was at about that time that I went away for 2 years to fulfill my Ph. D. residency requirement. When I came back, what I thought was a temporary re-allocation of space turned out to be permanent. In fact, at least one more classroom had been swallowed up by that computational monster.

    The situation stayed that way for the remaining time I was at that institution. In total, at least 5 years had been dedicated to that project. Meanwhile, there was no money to pay the teaching staff properly.

    While I was away for my leave, my alma mater had bought the same package and, yes, similar things happened there as well. At the start of my second year, the TA checks were delayed for several weeks because they couldn't be issued. Yup, that function was to be handled by that software package. Some grad students were threatened with expulsion because they couldn't pay their tuition and they couldn't pay their tuition because they couldn't get their checks.

    Later that academic year, the graduation list for our department had to be prepared by hand because the software couldn't do it.

    Rumour had it that whoever was responsible for obtaining that package for the university had been sacked.

    Was it any wonder that tuition at both institutions kept going up? It had to. First, someone had to pay for that software and the staff trying to beat it into submission wanted to be paid as well.

  4. I probably should have told some stories of software is funny watching completely incompetent admin dealing with computers. They're so clueless they're not even ABLE to hire/identify people that can fix the problems, which means it takes years and years before it finally gets resolves.

    And, since one institution is using totally worthless software, "best practices" can cause nearby institutions to make the same grotesque error, which actually ends up being worse since the small pool of people that can actually work with the software generally gets depleted by the first institution.