By Kathryn Watson – Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — Virginia’s increasingly pricey colleges and universitiesare pumping more and more into administration, and some experts say government subsidies are partly to blame.
With state and federal aid cushioning the blow to students and boosting college coffers, institutions don’t have to make fiscally responsible decisions on how to spend their money, said Jay Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. His work on an August 2010 Goldwater Institute report — “Administrative Bloat at American Universities” — ruffled plenty of feathers at institutions of higher learning.
In the six years leading up to the 2008-2009 academic year, all but one of Virginia’s 15 four-year public institutions upped their spending on administration — and by an average of 65 percent, according to a January 2012 report published by the American Council of College Trustees and Alumni. All but three of those schools increased their spending on administration at a much higher rate than its spending on instruction.
At Longwood University in Farmville,that meant a 131.5 percent increase on administration, compared with a 57.6 percent increase on instruction. Sabrina Brown, vice president of marketing and communications at Longwood, said the university is unable to provide comment immediately.
But Dan King, executive director of the American Association of University Administrators, has seen federal aid boost administrative costs in a very tangible way.
“With the availability of federal financial aid that comes to students, there’s this huge bureaucracy that we’ve had to create in colleges and universities to manage that and then report on it,” King told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
With federal student aid in the form of loans and Pell grants comes a slew of reporting requirements, said King. Universities have to help qualified students apply, then track their success and report it back to the feds.
“My sense is that administrative support staff has increased fivefold to support that whole endeavor,” King said.
Virginia isn’t alone in this upward trend in administrative growth. The ACTA study noted that, from 1976 to 2005, the ratio of non-teaching staff to students at American colleges and universities “more than doubled.”
“The dark side of this that we don’t’ like to talk about is that administrators, to some degree, we build our own field, right?” said King. “And so, administrators think administrators are important and what we do is important, and so as soon as something comes along, we’re quick to add personnel to it. We add personnel. We add personnel. We add personnel. … We’re not very good keepers of our own house sometimes.”
Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the ACTA who ran the study, said institutions have strayed for their core mission of instruction. Mentioning the recent turmoil at the University of Virginia, where the governing board of visitors ousted President Teresa Sullivan in part over financial concerns then reinstated her, Poliakoff said boards have a duty to ask the tough questions.
“Trustees need to be asking some real hard questions,” he told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau. “What are students getting from more vice presidents of this and more vice presidents of that? These things do not necessarily have anything to do with the quality of education.”
Even the Richmond Times Dispatch in a Wednesday editorial harped on institutions for their fiscal irresponsibility when it comes to hiring diversity staff — including an associate director in charge of sexual diversity at the University of Richmond.
“The modern university is a place where you can learn just about any discipline imaginable — except the fiscal kind,” the piece concluded.
A sampling of open positions from the June-July 2012 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education — practically the bimonthly bible of the higher education world — included jobs for positions like web graphic designer, coordinator of internships, associate director of student diversity programs and assistant director of civic engagement programs, to name a few.
That list of open positions — many of them new — baffles Saranna Thornton, economics professor at Virginia’s private Hampden Sydney College and author of a national study on faculty pay for the American Association of University Professors. She said the demands of the changing student and family also are to blame.
“If students and parents want the equivalent of a Rolls Royce education, then they need to be willing to pay for it,” said Thornton in an email. “ If they want a Ford Fiesta model of education, then they should stop asking that colleges and universities provide all these additional services.”
In the long run, Thornton, the mother of a college-age son herself, said she wondered if all the added services are more of a hindrance than a help.
“I think you see people who are less prepared to go out and figure out how to do things in the business world, if they’re used to having people hold their hands and walk them through processes,” Thornton said in a phone interview.
Undoing the administrative growth is possible. Just look at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine. In 2009, it handled its $100 million budget deficit partly by cutting 15 leadership positions and 450 lower-level staff positions. Faculty weren’t touched.
“They did it because they had to,” said Greene.
Closer to home, ask someone at Virginia’s Norfolk State University. It slashed administrative spending by 27.7 percent between 2003 and 2009, while growing instructional spending by 21.6 percent. Norfolk State University did not return Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau’s interview request.
King said college leaders should consider cost-saving measures, like outsourcing IT work, or maybe even library services.
“We haven’t stepped up and thought creatively ourselves about ways to outsource,” King said. “It’s not part of the culture of the way administrators think about their institution.”
Without any pressing need to, will colleges and universities actually bite the bullet and make those serious calls? Maybe.
“But right now, there really isn’t any demand, and there really isn’t any reward, for an institution that develops creative mechanisms for reducing costs,” King said.