Administrative Bloat Makes Colleges Worse

New data from ACTA shed further light on a longstanding higher-ed problem.

New data from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) shed light on the cost-effectiveness and academic quality of higher education in North Carolina. ACTA used its survey of “all regionally accredited, public four-year institutions with a stated liberal arts mission” to generate state-by-state rankings in categories ranging from curricular offerings and administrative costs to drop-out rates and speech-code policies. While North Carolina ranked highly in several categories, the data indicate significant room for improvement on student debt and administrative spending.

While public higher-education institutions in North Carolina have managed to keep tuition costs relatively low, North Carolina graduates hold a substantial amount of federal student-loan debt. Inflation-adjusted tuition has been decreasing at North Carolina public universities since the 2017-18 academic year. (Notably, with the exception of the 2021-22 academic year, inflation-adjusted tuition at private universities in North Carolina has increased every year for the past decade.) Nevertheless, although North Carolina ranks 10th-best nationally in tuition as a percentage of median household income (11.63 percent), ACTA’s survey found that the Tar Heel State’s graduate-debt average, which currently hovers around $22,000, places the state 32nd in the nation. ACTA draws student-debt data from College Scorecard, with each institution’s most recent class’s median federal debt weighted by the number of graduates with federal loans.

Increasing administrative costs are part of a broader trend toward bureaucratic social-justice initiatives.Public universities in North Carolina could substantially reduce students’ reliance on federal loans by eliminating excessive administrative costs. The administrator-to-professor ratio in North Carolina—calculated by dividing the number of employees listed as “managers,” “business and financial operations” staff, and “office and administrative support” by the number of professors, associate professors, and assistant professors—stands at 1.29, which means 129 campus bureaucrats for every 100 actual teachers. Additionally, North Carolina ranks in the nation’s top half in administrative spending per student, with $3,353 spent on “executive management, legal departments, fiscal operations, public relations, and development” per full-time student.

Administrative bloat clearly manifests in the spending data. The ratio of administrative costs to instructional costs at North Carolina public universities has increased by 13 percent since 2016 and stood at 0.26 in 2021. (In other words, institutions spent more than a quarter on administration for every dollar they spent on instruction, a category that includes far more than professor salaries.) According to economist Richard K. Vedder, growth in administrative spending is largely attributable to “wraparound services,” with administrators being hired to manage “mental health, entertainment, intramural sports, academic support, workforce preparedness,” and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Also driving the ratio of administrative costs to instructional costs upward, according to Vedder, is the fact that “the ranks of tenured faculty are flat or declining.”

A public university’s mission should be to provide an education that is both affordable and enriching. Increasing administrative costs are a symptom of a broader trend away from instruction and toward excessive hand-holding, extraneous amenities, and bureaucratic social-justice initiatives. Recent reporting from the Martin Center found that the UNC System spends over $11 million annually on DEI staff salaries alone. North Carolina public schools should focus on expanding academic offerings, not expensive amenities and activist administrators.

A bright spot for North Carolina public higher education is its highly ranked free-speech climate. ACTA places North Carolina fourth in the nation for “speech code policies,” based on the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s Spotlight Database. While FIRE’s data may not paint a comprehensive picture of the culture surrounding free speech on campuses, it does indicate that North Carolina colleges have very few policies restricting free expression.

It is worth noting, however, that many of the recent policy changes made to improve the free-speech climate at UNC campuses have involved undoing the work of the same oversized administrative bodies that have driven up costs for students. Bureaucratic initiatives such as the push to require DEI statements for hiring, tenure, and admission have, in addition to driving up personnel costs, posed serious concerns regarding compelled speech and institutional neutrality. Legislative action, such as the N.C. General Assembly’s bill forbidding compelled speech, was required to rectify the damage done by university-employed activists. Addressing the root cause of these issues—massive growth in university administrations—will help prevent further rights violations, reduce costs for students, and free up appropriations for more impactful academic missions.

Harrington Shaw is an intern at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and a senior studying economics and philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill.