Administrative Bloat at Universities

Recently, the NY Times ran an op-ed arguing that increased university administration has led to the incredible increase in college tuition. While the op-ed focuses on the classic neo-liberal phenomenon of looting–administrators who extract lavish salaries and perks from universities–Ed at Gin and Tacos lays out two other reasons for administrative bloat (boldface mine):

That’s not the whole story, though, and everyone in higher education is terrified to talk about the rest. Some of the administrative bloat is pointless. The rest of it is a result of two legitimate problems. One is that competition for students is intense (at private schools, “desperate” doesn’t go far enough to convey the enrollment situation these days) and colleges increasingly look to compete by turning the experience into a playground. Not only do they need to spend billions collectively on creature comforts – elaborate Rec Centers, luxury student housing and food, etc – but they have to hire countless paper pushers to administer the programs intended to keep students entertained. A gym is more than throwing up a building and filling it with treadmills. There have to be group fitness classes, semester long programs in whatever is trendy, a calendar full of events, and anything else you’d find on a cruise ship or resort.

The second part is the one people only whisper about. More and more students are going to college over the past two decades, partly driven by the availability of loans and the inability to enter most fields without a degree. The end result is that moreso than any time in the past, today there are huge numbers of students flocking to college who have zero ability to succeed there. Universities of course want to retain these students, and in order to do so they have to create a massive bureaucracy of support services. Any skill tangentially related to completing college level work now has a lavishly staffed support center devoted to it on campus. A writing center, a study skills program, tutoring services, a math helpdesk, a massive bureaucracy devoted to the shockingly large share of students diagnosed with various disabilities, and anything else you can imagine.

If you want to stay open, you have to admit a certain number of students. In an ideal world you accept only students who can succeed given the nature of the school. In reality you end up taking a lot who probably can’t. And if you accept students who do not know how to write sentences in English, you better have someone ready to hold their hand if you expect them to last longer than a semester. That costs money – a lot of money.

When you add up the cost of huge salaries for presidents, provosts, deans, and deanlets, recreational facilities that resemble theme parks, athletic programs (a competitive D-I football program costs a small fortune), shiny new buildings, and an army of functionaries tasked with guiding students who sometimes lack even high school level academic skills through college coursework, it makes sense why costs are exploding. Those of you who went to college in the ancient past can attest to how austere the accommodations were, how barebones the support services were, and how little “fun” universities paid to provide.

The neo-liberal belief that education will be the great panacea has led to this sorry state of affairs. Time was, college primarily functioned as one part finishing school for the middle, upper-middle, and upper classes (with some hardship cases thrown into the mix) and one part technical training* for a talented subset of students. Facilities could be sparse, if not outright monastic, and ‘teaching students up’ wasn’t really a concern. When universities are tasked with resolving massive educational disparities in an attempt to ameliorate underlying economic and wage differences, it gets expensive.

As long as the primary function of a college education is to serve as the gateway to a middle class life–not a gateway, the gateway–we’re going to see a lot of administrative bloat.

There might be a better way to allocate resources as a society.

*Technical training includes the humanities and social sciences.

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3 Responses to Administrative Bloat at Universities

  1. Robert L Bell says:

    A 90% marginal tax rate on income above, say, a million dollars a year would do wonders for a whole bushel of society’s ills.

  2. daved says:

    The “huge numbers of unqualified students” argument does not explain why there has also been an explosion in the number of administrators at Harvard or Dartmouth or any other elite school. Virtually any of their admissions will have what it takes to get through.

  3. alwayscurious says:

    Intense competition for students utterly fails to explain why state schools have increasing costs. Admissions at state schools on the west coast have been consistently rising. Therefore, the universities could easily become more selective by raising their academic standards without risk of a net loss of students. Most of the money that goes into “attracting” students is a wasted effort, but it DOES stroke the egos of the administrators that brought it to fruition.

    And that brings us back to why money is wasted. The state system wants to continuously increase their student population. While any decently planned expansion of teaching & housing capacity could easily be justified financially, there isn’t money to plan it right. So the system must cater to those with money (and big ideas) which brings it right back to the world of “let’s build a new clock tower and name it after the donor” or “lets add a full service conference facility so we can cater sports events AND attract world class conferences” rather than “let’s repair the instructional buildings that are about to collapse under their own weight” or “let’s work on transportation because increasing the university population by 2500 people will require more than 1 extra parking lot.”

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