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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

February 10, 2014 at 5:00 AM

How staff benefits and student services drive up college tuition

Corrected version

Higher-education watchdogs have often speculated that the rapid rise in college tuition is largely due to administrative bloat — or the increase in college administrative costs. The size of administration and high pay for college presidents and professors are often fingered as root causes.

It’s an important issue, because if costs could be cranked down or at least held steady, it would open the doors for more students to get their degrees without going into debt.

A new report by the Delta Cost Project takes a look at the nationwide increases, and finds some of these ideas hold true — but others do not.

It is true that compensation costs per employee are rising steadily, and there’s a widespread increase in the number of administrative jobs. In fact, “professional staff increased twice as fast as executive and managerial positions and account for nearly 20 to 25 percent of all campus jobs,” according to the report.

But the authors found that most of the increase was for jobs that provide non-instructional student services, like counseling, admissions, financial aid and athletics. Overall, public research universities and community colleges average 16 fewer employees per 1,000 full-time students today than they did in 2000.

The picture is slightly different at private colleges, which employed 15 to 26 additional workers, on average, per 1,000 full-time students during the same period.

The other striking finding: Colleges and universities are increasingly relying on part-time faculty, which account for at least half of instructional staff at many colleges and universities.

“Contrary to some public perceptions, faculty salaries are not the leading cause of rising spending or tuition increases in higher education,” said Donna Desrochers, a researcher at the American Institutes for Research, which runs the Delta Cost Project.

In a statement, Desrochers said that the “average salary for full-time faculty has stayed flat from 2002 to 2010. Additional hiring and benefits – including medical plans, Social Security taxes and retirement contributions – are driving much of the increase in overall compensation costs.”

The Delta Cost Project worked in conjunction with USA Today to analyze the numbers at the nation’s largest schools. Washington’s public universities show a pattern of increases and decreases that won’t surprise most higher-education watchers in this state.

For example, the percentage of full-time, part-time, administrative and nonprofessional teaching staffs at the UW per 1,000 students dropped between 2004 and 2012. The biggest drop was a 56 percent decrease in executive and management staff per 1,000 students between 2004 and 2012, and a 24 percent drop in clerical and technical support staff.

In 2009, the UW slashed its budget by $73 million in response to state budget cuts; it did this in large part by eliminating 600 to 800 positions in administrative and support functions through cuts and attrition.

In more recent years, it has added back some positions to support student services. According to the USA Today analysis, there’s been a 39 percent increase in the number of employees at the UW who provide student services and academic and professional support per 1,000 students.

Correction: The original version of this post, published at 5 a.m. Feb. 10, was corrected at 11:05 a.m. Feb. 10. The Delta Cost Project worked in conjunction with USA Today, not U.S. News & World Report, on analyzing the data.

Comments | More in News | Topics: administration, higher education, salaries


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