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Administrative Jobs, Benefits Costs Drive Higher Ed Labor Costs

February 20, 2014

Between 2000 and 2012, the workforce at public and nonprofit colleges and universities grew 28 percent—much faster than the growth in the preceding decade. This finding emerges from a new report released by the Delta Cost Project—now located at the American Institutes for Research—that examines changes in the size and composition of the labor force at colleges and universities and the resulting impact on the cost of a college education.

Enrollments also grew in the first part of the 21st century, leaving the staff-per-student ratio unchanged at public master's and bachelor's colleges and lower at public research universities and community colleges. At private colleges and universities, the number of staff rose, on average, by 15 to 26 workers per 1,000 FTE students.

Two aspects of the higher education workforce have been part of the conversation lately. One stems around allegations that "administrative bloat" is a primary cause of rising college costs. The other decries the decline of the full-time faculty and increasing reliance on part-time adjuncts to take on more instructional duties. Key findings of the Delta Cost Project's "Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive? Changing Staffing Patterns in Higher Education" shed light on both areas. For instance:

  • Creating new professional positions, rather than executive and managerial positions, drove the increase in administrative jobs. Professional positions (for example, business analysts, human resources staff, and admissions staff) grew twice as fast as executive and managerial positions at public non-research institutions between 2000 and 2012, also outpacing enrollment growth.
  • Growth in non-instructional student services, not just business support, was significant. According to the report, "wage and salary expenditures for student services (per FTE staff) were the fastest growing salary expense in many types of institutions between 2002 and 2012."
  • Institutions have continued to hire full-time faculty but at a pace that either equaled or lagged behind student enrollments, often filling non-tenure-track positions. The report concludes, "With benefits costs—rather than salaries—driving much of the increase in overall compensation costs, hiring part-time instructors has been the most common approach to trimming faculty compensation costs."
  • The number of faculty and staff per administrator continued to decline. The ratio of faculty and staff per administrator now averages 2.5 or fewer faculty and staff per administrator—a decline caused by the growth in ranks of managerial and professional administrative workers.

The report does not examine in depth the specific professional positions or departments that experienced growth, nor does it explore reasons for growth in these administrative ranks, which may include workplace needs and labor demands related to changes in the regulatory environment for higher education during the 2000-2012 timeframe or changing expectations of students, families, employers, and the public for enhanced non-academic programs in areas such as student health, financial literacy, and veterans' services. The authors conclude, "Many of these new positions appear to be providing student services, but whether they represent justifiable expenses or unnecessary 'bloat' is up for debate." 

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