Universities Are Churning Out the Next Generation of Higher Ed Bureaucrats

The number of non-academic administrators at colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years, far outpacing the growth in students and faculty. According to a report from the American Institutes for Research, between 2000 and 2012 the average ratio of full-time faculty and staff per administrator declined 40 percent, to around 2.5 to 1.

Today, there’s an administrative position for everything: marketing, diversity, disability services, sustainability, environmental health, recruiting, technology, fundraising, and so on and so forth. Every year universities seem to find a “need” for new administrators, and each one brings a host of new lower-level staff positions. This trend has resulted in a vast bureaucracy living “high on the hog” at taxpayer expense. Perhaps equally troubling is that it also has resulted in the creation of advanced degree programs aimed at churning out university administrators.

During a period in which many universities are experiencing budget shortfalls and enrollment stagnation, and advanced degree holders in more scholarly fields are working as adjunct professors and underemployed, the rise of higher education administration degree programs should come as a shock to university leaders and to taxpayers. Universities exist to transmit knowledge to new generations and to create new knowledge through research, not to create an army of bureaucrats who have little or no connection to improving student learning, and who enter the profession imbued with the social justice mindset (more on that later).

Several hundred universities now offer programs specifically tailored to train the next generation of orientation directors and student affairs specialists. Students interested in entry-level positions in higher education administration, such as dorm manager and diversity coordinator, typically pursue a master’s degree.

The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), which maintains a database of available degree options, lists 225 different master’s programs in the U.S. Those looking to advance to the top of the administrative food chain might seek a doctorate in education (Ed.D.) or doctorate of philosophy (Ph.D.) in higher education administration. NASPA lists 76 options for these programs.

Nine universities in the University of North Carolina system—Appalachian State, Fayetteville State, NC State, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Wilmington, East Carolina University, UNC Greensboro, and Western Carolina University—are among those listed by NASPA.

For example, East Carolina University’s doctoral degree in education leadership “aims to build the capacity of experienced leaders at community colleges, liberal arts institutions, research universities, and other academic organizations.”

UNC Greensboro offers a master’s of education program in student personnel administration in higher education designed to prepare graduates for jobs such as “residence hall director, coordinator of leadership programs, orientation director, and coordinator of student activities.”

After taking courses with titles like “Foundations of College Student Personnel Administration” and completing an administrative internship, Greensboro students can look forward to a nearly 100 percent job placement rate, according to the school’s website.

For even better odds at landing an administrative job, prospective students might look to Western Carolina University’s master’s in higher education student affairs, which boasts a 100 percent placement rate in higher education jobs or entrance into a Ph.D./Ed.D program.

Programs outside of North Carolina advertise high placement rates as well. For example, Bowling Green State University’s master’s in college student personnel has a 97 percent rate and Northwestern University reports a 90 percent placement rate for graduates of its master’s in higher education administration program. And nationally, it appears that higher education administration will remain a growing and lucrative career field for the foreseeable future. According to Florida State University’s higher education degree website:

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 19 percent increase in education administrator employment through 2020. The growth in this field is primarily due to increased enrollment in postsecondary schools. A large number of postsecondary education administrators are expected to retire between [now] and 2020, which will present many opportunities for graduates entering the field and mid-level professionals aiming to advance their career. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education Salary Survey, the median annual wage of postsecondary education administrators in 2014-2015 totaled $137,484 for top-level administrators, $56,716 for mid-level professionals, and $40,391 for entry-level professionals.

Such placement rates and job prospects starkly contrast with those of graduates of other, more academic, advanced degree programs in the humanities and even science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Many of those graduates are struggling to find work or underemployed. The message seems clear: if you want a job at a university, pursue non-academic roles requiring advanced degrees.

Many universities are eager to blame the overall growth in administrative staff on the need to comply with a growing list of federal mandates, which the Pope Center analyzed last March. But even so, should these bureaucratic positions require advanced degrees?

A 2004 survey of chief student affairs officers concluded that graduate programs are not effectively preparing new professionals for the field of higher education administration. But instead of examining if these programs are necessary at all, the survey suggested that universities increase the number of required courses to impart the high-level skills allegedly required in administrative positions.

But it would be fairly difficult to measure some of the “skills” that these programs claim to impart. For example, Western Carolina’s master’s in higher education student affairs program claims that, by the end of their studies, students will have developed an “appreciation of the worth and dignity of all people and to value differences.” And graduates of North Carolina State University’s master’s of higher education administration program will demonstrate a “commitment to social justice advocacy in education and society.”

There are reasons beyond degree descriptions to doubt the educational quality of these programs, however. For instance, the dissertations produced by higher education administration Ph.D.s often lack scientific rigor and have an ideological slant:

  • In this dissertation published in 2010, titled “Difficult Dialogues: How White Male Graduate Students in Student Affairs Preparation Programs Make Meaning of Their Whiteness, White Privilege, and Multiculturalism,” a NC State Ph.D. candidate concluded that “white male graduate students in student affairs preparation programs could benefit from required coursework in the areas of diversity and multiculturalism.”
  • And in this dissertation published in 2015, titled “Love and Hip Hop: The Meaning of Urban Reality Television in the Lives of Black College Women,” a Florida State Ph.D. candidate examined “the consumption of urban reality television…to determine how the confluence of identity development and media influences inform understandings of Black womanhood among Black undergraduate women.”

While it’s not clear how such social justice and pop culture know-how enhances college administration, professional organizations, such as the Council for the Advancement of Standards for Higher Education, have nonetheless continued to push advanced degree requirements for university bureaucrats.

This upward ratchet of credential and training requirements is perhaps not surprising, given that the higher education bureaucracy itself has ratcheted up so dramatically in size and scope in recent decades. What is surprising, however, is that university leaders and campus stakeholders have allowed administrators’ self-interest to go unchecked.

At a time when many universities are looking for ways to increase efficiency and tighten budgets, and many scholars and scientists are unable to find academic work, administrators are operating in a world of excess, as evidenced by the recent rise of administrative degree programs. This trend is yet another consequence of administrative bloat on college campuses. As long as that problem goes unaddressed, we should expect to see more and more universities churning out more and more overpaid, over-politicized, and over-credentialed administrators.