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.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    A Cleveland federal reserve bank researcher recently found that, contrary to popular belief, “the share of college employees who are executives, administrators, or managers has not changed appreciably over time.” I wonder if you could look over his results in the context of your article. There has got to be a major flaw in his approach, but I am unable to identify it. Thank you.


    • DrOfnothing

      Why has there “got to be a major flaw?” His analysis looks very accurate. The difference between the two is that Keaveney’s article is not based on primary research, and therefore paints with a broad brush. The second author has much more precise categories and analysis across a much long period, and he’s gone to the source material itself. His explanation that the trend is really a rise in support staff (“other professionals”) rather than high-level administrators. Keaveney’s article, in contrast, to be consistent with the Pope Center discourse and ideology, _must_ conflate the rise of support staff, who are generally paid entry-level wages, with the high-paid upper echelons of administration. This is to prove that university administrators are living “high on the hog” (Keaveney’s words), at the tax-payers expense. Both authors emphasize that faculty employment has remained flat as a percentage, though the second author is much more clear that this disguises a truly alarming trend–the rapid decline of full-time faculty in favour of adjuncts. But other Pope Center authors have roundly attacked the tenure system, so hardly surprising that Keaveney doesn’t emphasize this either. Lastly, there’s a factor at work that neither author mentions–the rapid rise of teaching technology. This has necessitated the entry of a whole new cohort into the HE system, and, to my mind, one that actually adds little of substance to the intellectual content of education. But, again, considering the unwarranted praise offered to online learning and its many “efficiencies” by other PC authors, one can understand why that was also omitted here.

      • Liesa Morrow-Bratcher

        Just an aside, if you look the author is named Stephanie Keaveney. I believe that would make the author a she and not a he.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Hi, Doc
        Thank you for the thoughtful comparison.

        The following example flies in the face of Fed’s Hinrichs, and supports Keaveney.
        Far more context is required to make this data plausible – the question is, what’s missing, why did Hinrichs’ Fed data not pick this up? I’ve data similar to Maryland’s from New York.

        “Lastly, there’s a factor at work that neither author mentions–the rapid rise of teaching technology. This has necessitated the entry of a whole new cohort into the HE system …” Yes. Good point. I would add, Institutional Effectiveness administrators are also recent staff additions, dealing with increased accreditation agency requirements. Hinrichs’ very coarse data is not detailed enough to identify these additions. Even if we did have better analytic tools, there is no guarantee that we are able to capture sector wide changes. This is what bothers me.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Part of my problem is that I didn’t look closely enough at Figure Three in Hinrichs, which contradicts his grab-a-headline:

        “[C]ounter to popular belief … I find that the share of college employees who are executives, administrators, or managers has not changed appreciably over time.”

        He can only say this by misinterpreting his own data — It jumps more than 10%, as seen in Phil’s chart.

  • Phil Magness

    This analysis is spot on. Low-level administrative bloat has skyrocketed in the past 30 years & is growing faster than any other entity on campus. One important thing to note: most of the discussion around admin bloat focuses upon the top of the food chain – presidents, vice presidents, provosts etc. These have grown too, but at a very slow pace. The low level admins have gone from near-parity with executive level admins in the 1970s to the point that they surpass faculty in number today.


  • Micha_Elyi

    Separation of School and State would resolve this issue beautifully.
    End taxpayer funding and abolish federal and state (I’m looking at you, Jerry Brown) mandates.

    The drawback? Freedom is not for sissies.

  • George

    RE: “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.”” Note what the description says – the individuals in this program are already in higher education. This does not bring more people into higher education administration. It introduces the people already in higher education administration to best practices, improving their performance. Note also that by cutting into the time faculty used to spend on activities like advising students, requiring faculty to increase research and grant productivity creates a need for new administrative units, such as an advising center staffed by people who are not faculty.

  • George

    One other thing: two things that require a lot of time and specially staffed units are strategic planning and learning outcomes assessment. The latter is required by regional accrediting agencies. Universities now must have strategic planning directors with staffs, and assessment directors with staffs. Would a cost-benefit analysis show that these are reasonable ways to spend a university’s scarce resources? You tell me.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Sorry, I missed this comment. The “departments” listed are recent, new additions. Only Phil’s chart captures these changes, I think.

      • George

        We hired a planning director for the first time in 1988. It went back to faculty/admin committees for awhile, then to the provost, then to three vc’s (jointly) then, in fall 2008, to a director housed in in Institutional Planning, Assessment and Research with a staff. Our first Assessment person was hired in fall 2008, followed by a director shortly thereafter, with a staff. That is in addition to a separate SACS director. We have no choice about the Assessment and SACS directors and their staffs…the job of showing compliance with SACS requirements is massive in a university with over 90 undergraduate degree programs. Note that we assess everything we do, not just academics. For SACS in 2013 we had over 500 asessment units campus wide.

    • bdavi52

      Good question.
      To get an ‘officially validated’ answer — definitely, a cost-benefit analysis (complete with accompanying Task Force) would need to be performed.

      Sad, though, that we have to go through that exceedingly pointless exercise because the answer, very clearly, is loudly and definitively “NO!”. Hard to imagine anything much more useless than “Strategic Planning” & “Learning Assessment” Staffs.

      Well — that’s not true. Actually we don’t even need to imagine such functions as the College Administrative Directory is chock full of Vice-Provosts & Associate Chancellors & Assistant Deans who run equally useless operations. Pays well though.

      • George

        Consider this: we justify paying huge amounts to deans ans vice chancellors and chancellors for their leadership, then hire soneone else to put together a group of mostly mid level people with no line authority to create the university’s strategic plan. Most deans and vcs play almost no role in creating the plan.

        • bdavi52

          Very true….and usually a good thing. Many of that ilk are “yo-yo’ administrators: they drop into a well-paid niche….spend a year or two….make an salable splash of some sort (start an Honors College….Consolidate Schools…something) and then leave. They know nothing of the college….the faculty…the students…or the tradition.

          But damn — they have a great handshake and pearly smile!

  • Crystal Chambers

    There have been a number of studies since that decades+ one of student affairs officers. In particular the work of Sydney Freeman https://works.bepress.com/sydney_freeman_jr/ takes the perspectives of university presidents on the value of the degree. In addition, a number of these programs support the advancement of senior level administrators in community colleges. Moreover, dissertations on factors such as student learning, experiences, retention and graduation inform all in the academy of how to do a better of job – getting to our bottom line of teaching, learning, graduating, and enabling students to secure employment to support themselves and make the world a better place.

  • bdavi52

    As Lactantius first noted (AD 250-325):

    “The number of (bureaucratic) recipients began to exceed the number of contributors by so much that, with farmers’ resources exhausted by the enormous size of the requisitions, fields became deserted and cultivated land was turned
    into forest. To ensure that terror was universal, provinces too were cut into fragments; many governors and even more officials were imposed on individual regions, almost on individual cities, and to these were added numerous accountants, controllers and prefects’ deputies. The activities of all these people were very rarely civil…”

    Underlined almost 2000 years later by David Mamet: “In the growth of any successful organization, a now-entrenched bureaucracy may work to change its object from production of a product to protection of its (useless) jobs. It is inevitable that the bureaucrat, awarded his job as a perquisite of superiors who wish to display their power and provide themselves insulation, will work, not primarily, but exclusively to obtain and exercise those same perquisites in his own behalf…”

    Thus we manufacture the Emperors of Higher Ed — their New Clothes marvels to behold.

  • bdavi52