Throughout the country, college costs have risen much faster than enrollment over the past few decades—and many fingers point to excessively high staffing as a cause. Two conflicting studies came out within a year of each other, one from the Goldwater Institute, an independent think tank with a history of criticizing academia and the other from the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), a professional organization of university administrators with an incentive to downplay any signs of such administrative bloat.
To get a handle on what really is occurring in the staffing of American universities, particularly in North Carolina, the Pope Center analyzed the two studies and also roughly replicated both of them for the 16 campuses of the University of North Carolina system. While we do not claim to be the definitive voice on the matter, we discovered that one of the two studies—the one that said excessive staffing is a serious problem—seemed to be on the mark. The other contained some truth but also raised a few questions about its objectivity.
In August 2010, the Goldwater Institute produced a study featuring the 198 most research-intensive universities in the country. The results indicated a serious problem: at those schools, the number of total staff positions per 100 students increased 13.1 percent from 1993. For just public universities, the increase was 10.8 percent. The chart below shows the Goldwater Institute study’s findings and compares them to our findings for the UNC system.
Such staffing growth conflicts with accepted theory. Since enrollments grew substantially in this period, universities should have been subject to economies of scale, in which larger size leads to greater efficiencies. They also should have responded to technical advancements; for example, one bookkeeper in a fully computerized system can do the work of several people performing the same tasks manually. With both of these factors at play, universities should have reduced their workforce per student over time.
In May 2011, SHEEO published a report called “Staffing Trends in Public Colleges and Universities." The results were remarkably different from those of the Goldwater study in that they showed a decline in university staff, not an increase. From 2001 to 2009, total staff members per 100 students at universities in the two most-intensive research categories (roughly matching the 198 schools in the Goldwater study) dropped by 4 percent (high research) and 11 percent (very high research). The following chart shows the results of the SHEEO study along with the Pope Center’s study over the same period, using the same definition of “staffing.”
Both studies used the same source data—the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)—so what can account for such extreme differences?
Our findings, which focused entirely on the UNC system, corroborated the Goldwater study for the most part. Between 1993 and 2010, total UNC system staffing indeed grew faster than enrollment: 51 percent against 42 percent; the number of total staff members per 100 students grew 5.9 percent.
But we also found that for UNC the steep increase in staffing, relative to enrollment, ended around 2001, as the SHEEO study claimed. The change was only temporary, however; while total staffing per 100 students shrank by about 1.7 percent between 2001 and 2005, it picked up again, growing 2.6 percent between 2005 and 2009. Overall, UNC staffing per 100 students grew, not fell, between 2001 and 2009, albeit by only 0.9 percent. And of course, even at the low point of 2005, staffing was much higher than it was in 1993.
There was no mention in the text of the SHEEO study that staffing per student began to climb again in 2006. Only the overall downward trend was shown. The uptick appeared in the SHEEO study’s data, however. Between 2005 and 2009, the high research schools increased total staffing by 3 percent the very high research schools increased staffing by a negligible amount.
The failure to mention the more recent upward trend in staffing was puzzling—certainly anybody who has looked at statistics professionally would be able to pick up the trend reversal and realize its significance. Such an important omission raises the possibility that the SHEEO researchers also “cherry-picked” 2001 as a starting point in order to show an overall decline in staffing, rather than the real long-term trend that staffing is rising. (There are no such concerns about the Goldwater study—the researchers chose 1993 because that was the first year for which this type IPEDS was available.)
Further insight can be gleaned looking at the changes in specific job categories.
There are eight IPEDS job categories. The Goldwater study combined several of them: “Graduate Assistants” were added to the rest of the faculty (“Instructional/Research/Service”), while “Technical/Paraprofessional,” “Skilled Crafts,” and “Maintenance” were combined into an “Other” category. The “Clerical” workers category was left by itself. Most importantly, the researchers or Greene added the “Administrative/Executive” category to “Other Professionals.”
It wasn’t hard to identify where the excessive growth was occurring. The lower-level operations workers who physically make the campus run declined significantly: “Clerical” workers at public schools fell by 24.4 percent from 1993 to 2010, and the “Other” category (comprised of technical and maintenance workers) decreased by 14.5 percent. This negative trend in these categories was also true for SHEEO and the Pope Center—precisely as predicted by accepted theories.
But the Goldwater researchers found that the decrease in low-level jobs was more than offset by the increase in the higher paid categories. Faculty rose by a very healthy 17.6 percent. Even worse was the 39.0 percent growth in administrative and professional employees at public universities (40.1 percent at private schools). Hence the report’s title: “Administrative Bloat at American Universities: The Real Reason for High Costs in Higher Education.” (Keep in mind that these figures are “per 100 students,” so that the increases are beyond proportional increases as campuses grew.)
At UNC, the story was pretty much the same as the Goldwater findings. The faculty categories grew somewhat more slowly between 1993 and 2010—by 8 percent at UNC schools, compared to the Goldwater results of 17.6 percent. However, combining graduate students with all faculty as in the Goldwater study may understate the actual growth of the faculty. UNC graduate assistants fell slightly as a percentage of enrollment between 1993 and 2010. This decline depressed the overall change. Faculty numbers, as reported in the narrower IPEDS Instructional/Research/Service category, rose by 31 percent.
As troubling as the growth in faculty in the UNC system may or may not be, the increase in Administrative/Professional positions per 100 students was even worse. They grew at a dramatic—perhaps even alarming—rate from 1993 to 2010: 67 percent (compared with 39 percent in the Goldwater study).
The SHEEO study combined the categories differently: Clerical workers were added to the Technical staff and Skilled workers to the Maintenance and Service personnel. The rest of the job categories were left alone. The SHEEO study showed that the Administrative and Professional categories had opposing trends. For universities classified as “Very High Research,” administrative employees dropped by 15 percent between 2001 and 2009, while “other professionals” grew by only 2 percent. At “High Research” schools, executive and administrative employees dropped by 26 percent between 2001 and 2009, while “other professionals” grew by 8 percent.
These tendencies were similar for UNC schools in that same 2001 to 2009 time frame—only much more emphatic. Administrators per 100 students dropped 33 percent, but that loss was more than offset by a 29 percent rise in professional employees per 100 students (there are many more professional employees than administrators). It may also be that many administration jobs were reclassified as professional in that time period.
What can be said about the explosive growth of the Professional category, which even the SHEEO study says has grown faster than enrollment? Certainly this trend is connected to higher education’s tendency toward “mission creep”: many schools are now attempting to perform functions that were formerly outside of higher education’s traditional scope—and it is in the additional activities where Professional staff are likely to be found.
For instance, both the Arizona universities (cited for their explosive growth of administrators and professionals in the Goldwater study) and the UNC system have become heavily involved in their state’s economic development efforts—with questionable effects. Most universities have also become more involved in social issues—both on campus, where all manner of multicultural and diversity offices abound that are not directly part of the academic mission, and off campus, as at Syracuse University, where involvement in the community is taking precedence over more traditional academic pursuits. Even the recent austerity imposed by the economic downturn has not changed the way academia thinks—some schools in the UNC system were hiring new diversity officers even as they trimmed faculty and reduced course offerings.
But for politicians and university officials looking to make cuts at UNC schools and elsewhere—as they will likely have to do in the near future, the bloat is plain to see. They question is whether they have the will to pick such obvious low fruit as academia’s vast and growing army of non-faculty “Professionals.”