Monday, May 20, 2013


Reading Beyond Headlines

Investigative reporting is great, when it makes the story fit the facts.  It’s a lot less great when it simply ignores facts and tells a story that has nothing to do with them.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting fell into the second category with its story this week, in which it loudly proclaimed that “Massachusetts universities and colleges that say they’re trying to hold down costs have increased their number of administrators three times faster than their number of students.”  

The story goes on at some length to suggest that the primary driver of cost increases for students is administrative bloat, which combines a proliferation of positions with high salaries.  To make the case, it includes a chart showing changes in the number of administrators at colleges throughout Massachusetts from 1987 to 2012, coupled with changes in enrollment over the same period.  It’s sprinkled with quotes from Benjamin Ginsberg, the Goldwater Institute, and Bain Capital.  (Bain’s is particularly choice: ““In no other industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this rate—executives would lose their jobs,” analysts at the Boston-based financial management firm Bain & Company wrote, in a July white paper, of administrative spending in higher education.”)

It’s a familiar narrative -- even a bit shopworn -- and people who know the catechism can recite it.  The story includes the familiar shots at government employees, such as one would expect from Bain Capital and the Goldwater Institute, In a halfhearted attempt at “balance,” it includes a few quotes from college officials gamely trying to explain that, say, campus IT demands in 1987 simply were not of the order of magnitude that they are now, or that you can’t build dorms and not hire people to run them.  

But then, there’s the chart.  

The chart is where the entire argument falls to pieces.  It’s worth checking.

If the argument of the article -- sorry, the “investigation” -- held water, then we would expect rates of tuition increase to run roughly parallel to rates of administrative increase.  If administrative bloat is what drives costs, then surely colleges with more bloat would have greater increases, and colleges with less bloat would have less.  Hell, the several colleges with administrative shrinkage should have gotten cheaper.

Nope.  Not even close.  That’s probably why the chart doesn’t include costs from 1987 to 2012.  

Just for fun, let’s start with my own institution, Holyoke Community College.  Using the chart’s numbers, from 1987 to 2012, “total administrators” (full and part time) increased by 14 percent.  Over that same period, enrollment increased by 49 percent.  Which means that the number of students per administrator actually increased.  Using the raw numbers on the chart, in 1987 HCC had one administrator for every 73 students.  By 2012, HCC had one administrator for every 96 students.  How that constitutes “bloat” is beyond me.  If the “bloat drives costs” argument were true, then, HCC should be cheaper for students in real terms in 2012 than it was in 1987.

Um, no.

Maybe community colleges are a special case, and I should look at private colleges instead.  (That doesn’t help the “government employee” narrative, but whatever.)  Take Smith College, a well-respected private women’s college just up route 91 in Northampton.  Surely an elite college such as that has lined the pockets of its management!

Again, no.  According to the chart, its administrative ranks have decreased by 37 percent, even as its enrollment grew by 9 percent.  Surely, it must be cheaper now!


Well, maybe it’s a Boston thing.  (We in Western Mass sometimes get overshadowed.)  Let’s look at Northeastern University.  It’s one of the more expensive universities in the state, obviously driven by its negative 76 percent change in the number of administrators.


Look, if you want to do propaganda effectively, don’t include a chart in your own story that discredits your entire narrative.  This is just shooting fish in a barrel.  Alternately, if you actually want to style yourself an investigative reporter, start by investigating your own effing chart.  It’s not that hard.  I did it between innings at a Little League game.  

The simple fact is that the “administrative bloat” hypothesis is badly overblown, when it isn’t entirely fictitious.  That’s how we can have uniform cost increases across an entire industry, even while some colleges’ administrative ranks grow dramatically, some remain flat, and some shrink dramatically.  

The real issues aren’t about fat cat administrators building empires.  (Admittedly, I enjoy the irony of Bain Capital calling out fat cats.)  Cost drivers include Baumol’s cost disease, the rise of IT, various unfunded compliance mandates, and public disinvestment.  Among elite privates, replace “public disinvestment” with “status competition.”  If you want to get a handle on costs, address those.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work; there aren’t as many of us per student as there used to be.

Unfortunately, my kid's college doubled their administrator load (and engaged in all manner of other inefficiencies) for an almost nonexistent increase in students.

My sympathies are with the investigative reporters, even if they represent a partisan line of thought, and I do think that there are a host of things institutions can do to become more efficient. However, where we can agree is that the argument is too broad and the data is far more nuanced. It does look like most of you guys in the CC sector are doing good work, and your particular argument is valid (although Cape Cod and Mount Wachusett's numbers don't add up), and I don't doubt you and other administrators like you work very hard with right motivations.

Dean Dad, keep making good arguments. We need to make education work, and work efficiently.
Three comments:

1) You could add the rising cost of health care to college price.

2) I have worked at colleges and universities where the faculty (while often very protective of the clerical folks--who admittedly are the lowest paid and least powerful group on campus) decried the rise of the administrator class. Now, I understand that there's a certain zero-sum attitude here and another VP means on some level that a tenure-line faculty position is not going to be created.

However, 40 years ago, the FACULTY at many places did judicial affairs, served as advisors, ran admissions, advised Greek Life, coordinated res life, career centers, etc. Let's just say I haven't seen a lot of faculty willing to assume those duties again. (A former faculty colleague took me aside one day and said he'd been to a student affairs conference as part of some administrative training. He told me he was stunned at the challenges and issues that student affairs administrators routinely--and said that he "sure couldn't do it."

3) More people with emotional, psychological, and medical needs are coming to campus, necessitating counselors, disability specialists, learning coordinators, medical personnel, etc. I think people who wouldn't have been able to go to college a generation ago should have the opportunity, but that's got to drive up the costs as well.
Anonymous 5:52 makes a good point.

@point number 2:

I as faculty do decry the expansion of the administration position. For 2 main reasons:

a) At my institution it came with a reduction in full time faculty. This increased the workload of HODs in terms of adjunct supervision, management and facilitation.

b) We faculty still advise students, run students activities while carrying a 5-6 course load. The administrative increase has given us no relief, but increased our load in new areas. Add to this the fact that there is little consultation.

@#3, correct as well, if in fact the school has expanded its service in that direction by hiring people or building facilities. Here , we faculty bear the burden. this burden should be borne by increased governmental support directed specifically to those lines. But education suffers from cuts.
My institution often receives praise because we do more with less, staffing-wise, than any other school in our state. This goes for all sides of the house. I'm certain that students suffer when we're all buried under piles of workload so deep we'll never dig out, but hey, it keeps the Koch Brothers happy.

I do sound like a conservative talking point when I say it, but a huge chunk of time on campus is devoted to government regulation. Not just the enormous sponsored programs staff but even just our regular state-funded spending. Our state is so completely terrified by the notion that we might not make optimal use of public funds every second of every day that there are whole departments of people who exist just to make sure we're not breaking any of their rules. And I'm not talking about outright fraud (every institution needs folks looking out for that) but stupid, petty things.

I'll give you an example. One of the overlords recently asked me to produce a written justification when I bought a cheapo vacuum cleaner for our office. HOW COULD WE POSSIBLY NEED SUCH A THING? MUST BE FUNNY BUSINESS GOING ON! We need it because we have a high-traffic office admissions office and sometimes folks track mud on the floor and we don't want to wait a day or two for it to get cleaned. We have people here at this institution who, despite being overworked and yet dramatically underpaid for our region, are still offering to vacuum in the middle of the day (!) just to make the office look nice for students. And the state is on that horrible abuse of funds like white on rice. They waste their time, I waste my time on what is essentially some good employees taking initiative.

This is the irony of an ideology that regards government spending of any kind as an absolute horror: the more rules you put on it to punish your universities for their audacity in being public institutions, the more benefitted positions you have to hire to enforce the rules. And you don't even see the irony.
Nice takedown. This is what good blogging is so good at, the fact-based reality check.

In my experience, the more you know personally about a story, the more you'll recognize that the press coverage is terribly, terribly inaccurate. It's not necessarily deliberate, or agenda driven. When I was interviewed by a sympathetic journalist years ago, I was shocked when I read her published story. Was I really that unclear, was she not listening carefully, or was she just not very talented? Doesn't matter.

Now you can empathize with conservatives who fume over the inaccurate media coverage they get.
Instead of looking at the ratio of the numbers of administrative personnel to the numbers of registered students, I wonder if a ratio of the numbers of administrators to the numbers of full-time faculty members might tell a quite different story.

When I speak of administration, I include not only the top-level folks--the deans, assistant deans, associate deans, vice presidents of whatever, and assistant and associate directors of this or that, all of whom are supposedly drawing fat-cat salaries. I also include all of the support people, all of the front-office and back-office people who do the routine, day-to-day work of the administrative offices.

Back in the day when I was an undergraduate at a SLAC in the 1960s, there was a president (whose main job was fundraising), a Dean of the College who handled academic matters, a Dean of Men, a Dean of Women, plus a Registrar and a Director of Placement, and that was about it. No assistant or associate deans and no vice presidents. There were not all that many support personnel either--whenever you went into the Dean’s office, just about the only person there was a secretary who was shared by all of the deans.

Those were the good old days. I suspect if I went back there today, there would be a lot more people in the administrative offices—a bevy of vice presidents, directors of this and directors of that, plus a bunch of assistant and associate deans, as well as a lot of people to back these people up.

Now I know that there is a lot more administrative work that needs to be done in colleges and universities these days, a lot more than when I was an undergraduate. The handling of the details of student financial aid requires a lot of people. Colleges and universities now have to show that they are in compliance with a long list of government regulations, most of which are unfunded mandates, all of which require extensive support staffs which drive up the costs. Keeping up with the demands and requirements imposed by the accrediting agencies necessitates a lot of administrative support, as well as taking up of a lot of the time of faculty members. The outcomes assessment fad takes up so much time and effort that colleges need to hire a Director of Assessment, plus a lot of support staff in order to keep the accreditors happy. The current litigious environment requires that colleges and universities keep a gaggle of lawyers on staff or retainer, just in case an irate student, an angry parent, or a faculty member who was denied tenure gets angry and decides to file a lawsuit.

It is small wonder that college costs have grown at a much higher rate than inflation in general, even faster than the rate of rise of medical costs.

Instead of looking at the ratio of the numbers of administrative personnel to the numbers of registered students, I wonder if a ratio of the numbers of administrators to the numbers of full-time faculty members might tell a quite different story.

Guessing that it probably would.

And with regard to Anonymous 5:52--I work at a CC in the same state as Dean Dad, and I do a lot of what you mention in point 2, because it's dictated in our contract. I also do a lot of things which aren't dictated in our contract, because STEM is hot right now and we're expected to be present at all sorts of meetings to give data and our opinions. We write grants, despite the fact that there is also a grants office whose main job is to do this task. We host high school students and other visitors who want to learn more about STEM and tour our labs.

I don't know many faculty who just teach.
In re Anao at 2:20 PM (just above): You can use the database to calculate that. The number of administrators per FT faculty across all the institutions in the database rises from 0.32 to 0.40, or by 24.9%, roughly comparable to the increase relative to enrollment (+26.4%). The ratio of administrators to all faculty (FT+PT), on the other hand, is u nchanged at 0.2 admins per total faculty.
I think I should point out that there is something odd about the spreadsheet, which is downloadable. The columns for enrollment are labeled "Full-TimeEnrollment," which may mean FTE enrollment. But it may not. If part-time enrollments are excluded, then this study loses any pretense to validity.
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