Printer Friendly

An Exploration of Administrative Bloat in American Higher Education.


From its humble beginnings with the founding of Harvard in 1636 to educate men for the local government and clergy, the purpose of higher education in America has been to fulfill the educational needs of the populace for the benefit of American society (Harvard University n.d.; Hudson 1939). To this day education remains one of the central missions of colleges and universities in America. Numerous studies have been undertaken that highlight the significance of a college education and degree obtainment, demonstrating that those who have obtained a college degree earn more during their lifetime than those whose education stopped with a high school diploma (Slaper and Foston 2013).

While it is well known that a college degree positively impacts personal finance, many students face financial barriers that prevent them from attending a college or university. Countless students and their families could not, on their own, afford the cost of attendance. This not only includes tuition but also books, housing, meals, and other expenses (Mortenson 2000). To gain access to higher education, many students and families need some form of financial assistance. The federal government provided one such assistance program through the passage of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (Bound and Turner 2002). Commonly known as the G.I. Bill, this legislation provided servicemen and women returning home from World War II $500 toward tuition and a monthly allowance for books and fees (United States Department of Veteran Affairs 2012). As a result, college enrollment increased by approximately 50 percent compared to pre-World War II numbers (Bound and Turner 2002).

The G.I. Bill placed financial power directly in the hands of students as the recipients of the grants (Bound and Turner 2002). This new paradigm of awarding aid directly to students and not to postsecondary institutions provided the blueprint for the future of federal financial aid. For example, the federal Pell Grant program launched in 1972 was intended to expand access to higher education to more Americans by awarding vouchers for financial support directly to students (Baum and Scott-Clayton 2013). The financial reach of this program and its impact on the national economy have drawn considerable attention from federal and state governments over the years.

To better understand the impact of higher education on the American economic landscape, one has only to consider a report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The NCES reports that during the 2014-2015 academic year, "postsecondary institutions in the United States spent $536 billion" (National Center for Education Statistics, n.d., [paragraph] 1); however, at state or public schools, only 27 percent of this spending was used for educational purposes (National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.). If one of the tenets of higher education is to indeed provide education, this begs the following questions: Why is only one-quarter of the spending at public postsecondary institutions on educational activities? And, on what is the rest of the money being spent?

To begin to answer these questions, the decline of strong faculty governance must be scrutinized. Due in part to the copious spending by government entities on higher education and the tremendous increase in student enrollments, the governance of colleges and universities in the United States has undergone a shift in control from faculty to administrative bodies (McLendon, Deaton, and Hearn 2007). This shift has contributed to an increase in the number of administrators and a relative decrease in the number of faculty members. Callier, Singiser, and Vanderford (2015, p. 13) reports that from 1993 to 2007 "the number of full-time academic administrators per 100 students at American research universities grew by 39 per cent, whereas the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service per 100 students only grew by 18 per cent." This growth in the number of administrators has led to an accompanying increase in expenditures for administrative salaries and benefits, administrative support staff, and general administrative job functions. The growth of the administrative structure in higher education has been referred to as "administrative bloat," as if to imply that it may be unnecessary or extreme. This article seeks to explore administrative bloat in higher education through a review of the available literature and offer some suggestions to mitigate the effects of administrative bloat in our colleges and universities.


Faculty governance in American higher education rose gradually, reaching its pinnacle during the 20th century. During the post-World War II era, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) advocated for shared governance between faculty and campus administrators through faculty senates. Moreover, the AAUP argued that faculty should, generally, be involved in the internal operation of the institution and in control of academic matters (Schloss and Cragg 2012). In this model, trustees instilled authority in campus-level faculty-based governing boards, which were permitted to determine policy and make financial decisions (McLendon, Deaton, and Hearn 2007). This was a golden age for faculty, who were able to direct changes in campus operations and academic mission, but their control began to erode as the number of administrators increased.

As noted, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 and the 1972 federal Pell Grant program contributed to an unprecedented surge in student enrollments in colleges and universities that corresponded with a previously unequaled level of spending by state and federal governments on higher education (Gladieux and King 1999). The popularity of these programs and the immensity of government spending created the need to ensure that taxpayers' dollars were being spent effectively. This came about "in an era whose prevailing managerial conception of public organization was rooted in a deep faith in bureaucracy and administrative centralization to achieve public ends" (McLendon, Deaton, and Hearn 2007, p. 647). As a result, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, state governments sought and legislatively employed strategies to streamline the operation of their public colleges and universities. For example, some states created consolidated governing boards capable of exerting centralized power and authority over the state's public campuses (McLendon, Deaton, and Hearn 2007). Other states established coordinating boards to serve as intermediaries between the legislature and the state's colleges and universities (McLendon, Deaton, and Hearn 2007). While the boards were intended to serve the interests of both the state and its postsecondary institutions, there was a tremendous risk that they would be more responsive to state interests, primarily due to political influence. McLendon, Deaton, and Hearn (2007, p. 648) note, "policy rationales asserted in justification of these changes often pointed to the desire for improved accountability, operating efficiency, cost savings, competitiveness, coordination, and innovativeness." However, unbeknownst to legislators, these changes may not have had the intended effect; rather, by paving the way for the decline of faculty members' power and influence in that faculty senates largely now serve only in an advisory capacity to campus administration (Schloss and Cragg 2012), they may have actually created an environment that has contributed to increasing administrative bloat.

There are numerous examples in the literature describing the growth in the number of administrators and administrative staff over the past few decades. In one such example, in the 25 years prior to 2002, the number of managers within the Connecticut State University System increased by 100 percent, the number of administrators increased three times, and the overall number of staff positions increased by a factor of 10 (Business Wire 2002). While data highlighted by Reindl (2006, p. 53) from the NCES states, "the share of total staff consumed by executive/administrative positions changed little over the ten-year period (5.5 percent in 1993 to 5.8 percent in 2003)" at American colleges and universities, it does raise the question of how many positions might have been generated on a campus-by-campus basis. Further, this data does not address the number of additional administrative staff and supervisory positions that would undoubtedly have been created to work under the direction of these top administrators.

Rogers (2012) reports noticeable changes in the number of tenure-track faculty members and full-time administrators at public research universities from 1987 to 2008. In 1987, the number of tenure-track faculty members and full-time administrators was nearly equal. By 2008, a dramatic shift had taken place, with only 0.56 tenure-track faculty members for every administrator. In other words, the number of full-time administrators was nearly double that of tenure-track faculty members.

In summary, the growth in access to higher education through increased government support led to record numbers of students attending American colleges and universities. Because federal and state governments were spending more on higher education, there was a need for added state oversight of colleges' and universities' stewardship of taxpayer dollars. As a result, state legislatures promulgated changes in the governance of their respective postsecondary systems, enabling the growth of the number of campus administrators and staff. Another, perhaps unintended, consequence of these changes has been the erosion of faculty power on campus, partly due to the decreased number of full-time tenured faculty. This is discussed in the next section.


Callier, Singiser, and Vanderford (2015, pp. 13-14) note that historically, universities were "self-governing bodies where tenured academics played a principal role in the university governance." With more power shifting to campus administrators, the relative strength of the faculty's role in shared governance in American higher education has eroded over the past few decades (Schloss and Cragg 2012). It has been surmised that this power paradigm shift has occurred as a result of the sheer increase in the number of campus administrators and administrative staff, the decrease in the number of tenure-track faculty, and the increased use of contingent and adjunct faculty for student instruction. For example, the Connecticut State University System reported in 2001 that part-time faculty members taught over 30 percent of the classes (Business Wire 2002). While NCES data indicates that faculty and instructors, as a total percentage of all staff, increased by three percent from 1993 to 2003 at public research universities (Reindl 2006), this figure does not describe the composition of the increases. That is to say, these increases were likely not from increases in full-time, tenure-track faculty, but rather from increases in non-tenure-track, part-time, and adjunct faculty. Further, this data does not provide a description of the change in the composition of existing faculty positions during the 10-year period.

Samuels (2009, p. A9) provides further insight into the changing composition of faculty positions, reporting, "over 65% of all teaching in our institutions of higher education is now done by contingent faculty, and in the case of composition, almost all of the teachers of undergraduate courses are working outside of the tenure system." Rogers (2012, [paragraph] 10) indicates that over a 20-year period from 1987 to 2008, "the number of tenure-track faculty per 100 students at public research universities grew by 3 percent, while the number of part-time faculty per 100 students grew by 60 percent." In addition, there were increases of 9 percent and 57 percent per 100 students of executive/managerial staff and non-instructional personnel respectively (Rogers 2012). The increased use of contingent and adjunct faculty members at American colleges and universities has allowed for the continued downward trend in the number of full-time, tenure-track faculty; conversely, executive administrators and their staffs have enjoyed an increasing presence on campus.

The reduction in the number of full-time, tenure-track faculty in America's postsecondary institutions does not fully explain their loss of power in the process of shared governance or their inability to resist administrative bloat. Samuels (2009) suggests an increasing number of faculty are not hired within the tenure system; therefore, they are denied the privilege of participating in the shared governance of the institution. As a result, there are indeed fewer faculty with the right to combat the rise of administrative bloat and administrative influence over the operation of their institution. Further, tenured and tenure-track faculty members have tended to direct much more of their efforts to their own academic and professional interests, allowing their role in institutional governance to be usurped by executive administrators (Samuels 2009). The importance of the faculty's role in shared governance goes beyond mere attempts to retain control of institutional operations. It has been suggested that it is preferable for faculty to maintain accountability for their own performance within the academy so that they are better equipped to execute the institution's primary mission of education, genuinely guiding students to become critical thinkers (Schlosser 2016). However, as Callier, Singiser, and Vanderford (2015) note, university governance is now a specialized niche that academic administrators have carved out for themselves, and part of this governance structure includes oversight over curriculum design and degree requirements. It seems to defy convention to place responsibility for these aspects of the educational mission in the hands of administrators rather than allow faculty to retain oversight and autonomy in these matters. Faculty are typically regarded as the experts in their respective fields, which situates them as better suited to establish curricular requirements for students. Administrative control over these aspects of higher education should prompt one to wonder whether the integrity of educational quality has been maintained and whether students are the recipients of an academic curriculum that is appropriately suited to developing critical thinkers.


Over the years, the American media has drawn attention to the rising cost of postsecondary education as well as the snowballing burden of student debt. Further examination of the funding and expensing dynamic is warranted, with particular consideration of the dollars spent on student instruction and administrative endeavors. State colleges and universities rely on funding from state governments for their operation; however, the portion of their overall operating budgets that comes from state-provided funds has been dwindling. For example, Burawoy (2016) observed that state contributions to the University of California, Berkeley, now account for only 13 percent of the university's total operating budget compared to 50 percent 30 years ago. The situation in California is only one example: during the major economic recession that began in 2008, most state governments faced budgetary deficits, prompting many of them to further reduce funding for their higher education institutions.

Budget reductions prompted the University of California to reduce student enrollments with the intent of cutting expenses by offering fewer classes. It was thought that such a reduction would lead to savings since not as many lecturers would need to be hired and vacant faculty positions could remain open (Samuels 2009). Many other colleges and universities have resorted to increasing tuition rates to alleviate state funding deficiencies.

While it is commonly known that the cost of attending college has been dramatically increasing for several decades, the extent to which student fees have also increased is less commonly known. Wobbekind (2012, p. 92) describes inflation in higher education with respect to the consumer price index (CPI), stating that "since 1981 tuition has risen at an annual rate of 7.1 percent, and room and board has increased 5.3 percent, compared with 3.2 percent for the CPI." As a result of the tremendous rate at which tuition and fees have been climbing, colleges and universities have been facing increased scrutiny regarding their operational expenditures (Slaper and Foston 2013). Certainly, it is prudent to evaluate institutional ability and effectiveness in navigating concerns related to "such factors as rising tuition levels, enrollment pressures, program duplication, accountability demands, concerns about the effectiveness of state boards, and ambiguities of institutional mission" (McLendon, Deaton, and Hearn 2007, p. 649). Beyond these significant factors, administrative bloat must also be considered as a growing component of an institution's comprehensive operational costs.

Cost containment efforts at American colleges and universities seem to ignore spending on administrators and staff. When the University of California attempted to curtail its expenses by reducing money spent on its educational mission, a salary freeze was implemented for faculty; however, executive-level administrators were exempted in an effort to retain the talent currently occupying those positions (Samuels 2009). While institutional presidents at Ohio's state universities tried to persuade the state legislature to erode faculty members' bargaining privileges in order to better manage institutional financial resources, one economics professor provided testimony to the legislative body that indicated, "between 1987 and 2008 academic spending at Ohio public universities and community colleges increased 179%, but spending in administrative categories had increased 270%--a fifty percent higher rate" (Gelman 2012, p. 529). From 2010 to 2014, the University of Arkansas System saw the number of administrative positions increase from 460 to 703, a gain of 243 positions, with salaries that climbed above the $100,000 mark (Friedman 2014). Additionally, Friedman (2014, [paragraph] 9) described 55 upper-administrative positions that enjoyed "double-digit increases in total compensation." The robust compensation packages were justified by the system's president as necessary to be able to attract top-tier talent (Friedman 2014). In more general terms, Gordon (2013, p. 35) reports that "spending in higher education normalized on a per student basis has increased at a rate of about 35 percent over the last 20 years, but non-instructional spending on a per student basis has increased about 60 percent." At American colleges and universities, institutional spending on student education rose at a rate of 34.5 percent from 1993 to 2007; however, spending on administrative functions rose at a rate of 61 percent over the same timeframe (Gordon and Fischer 2011). Callier, Singiser, and Vanderford (2015) describes student debt in relation to the pay of top-level institutional administrators at public universities. Student debt generally increased by five percent above the national average from 2006 to 2012 at the 25 public universities with the highest pay rates for top administrators.

In summary, funding contributions from state governments to American colleges and universities have been diminishing for several decades. This has prompted higher education institutions to compensate by increasing tuition; however, these increases have been dramatically higher than general inflation and have created a staggering debt burden for students. The cost of providing education has generally been regarded as increasing, but colleges and universities readily opt to reduce actual dollars spent on education to contain costs. Institutions have not exercised the same judicious approach to reining in their administrative costs, but instead have allowed them to grow in terms of the number of administrators and staff. Thus, administrative bloat has been allowed to persist.


Despite concerns regarding administrative bloat in higher education, there appears to be a dearth of scholarly information promulgating strategies to reduce bloat. The particular components of administrative bloat that warrant the greatest attention relate to the growth of administrative expenses in terms of the number of administrators, the number of administrative support staff, and the escalation of top administrators' salaries. To reduce institutional costs associated with administrative bloat, there are a number of strategies to consider.

One strategy focuses on the relative amount of money spent on administrative functions versus student education. Colleges and universities should commit to spending no more than a certain percentage of their funding from state appropriations and student fees on administrative expenses. This percentage would need to be based on the individual institution's overall budget, which may vary greatly among institutions in particular areas such as research. Certainly, faculty salary lines, student laboratory supplies, and support for online learning management systems should be included as components of educational expense. However, services provided by the registrar's office and the financial aid office, although student related, should be considered administrative costs as should top administrator salaries and bonuses. The establishment of such criteria would help institutions assess and contain the amount of money spent on administrative functions and keep them poised to maintain a financial commitment to their educational mission.

Another strategy is concerned with the relative number of courses taught by full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty compared to non-tenure-track, part-time, and contingent faculty. Within colleges and academic departments, institutions should develop thresholds for the number of courses and sections of courses that may be taught by the latter types of faculty. Depending on institutional needs, these thresholds should be relatively small. This would allow part-time and contingent faculty to support the institution on an as-needed basis rather than as a foundational supply of educators. Whatever threshold may be adopted, this approach should put more of the teaching responsibility back in the hands of tenure-track faculty. This would likely result in an increase in the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty members, which in turn could lead to more faculty members with a vested interest in institutional governance. As a result, faculty senates would be poised to assert a greater level of influence over campus operations and in a stronger position to counteract administrative bloat.

An additional strategy that may prove effective is the development of a consortium of faculty senates from state colleges and universities within a particular state. Given that faculty governance has weakened and the voice of the faculty senate carries less influence on campus than it once did, today's faculty need to consider alternative approaches that strengthen their voice and standing in shared governance and bolster their ability to create change on campus. The intent behind this consortium would be to develop a strong lobbyist group that interacts with state legislators to pass legislation directed at reducing administrative bloat. For this strategy to be effective the consortium would need to focus on one of the state's primary aims when it comes to higher education: educating students and spending funding appropriately on educational mission.


Administrative functions on American college and university campuses play an essential role in institutional operations. Administrative staff attend and facilitate many types of meetings and events (Gelman 2012) required for the campus to function, and the use of various educational technologies that have emerged over the past few decades requires significant administrative support. Additionally colleges and universities face robust and stringent requirements for accreditation, and it falls to administrators to coordinate and gather the supporting documentation (June 2017). As an example, Morris (2010) highlighted the University of Georgia at Athens, whose reaccreditation process required 15,000 pages of supporting documentation to address the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' (SACS) 800 pages of core requirements. Further, Morris (2010, p. 295) pointed out that "the process is an extremely important, high-stakes activity since colleges and universities must be accredited in order to participate in a myriad of federal programs valued in excess of $75 billion." Moreover, colleges and universities have had to develop offices to oversee diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns to satisfy accreditation requirements and be able to participate in federal financial aid programs (Slaper and Foston 2013).

This exploration of administrative bloat in higher education was not intended to undermine the value of administrative functions but rather to draw attention to the adverse effects that bloat may have in terms of the financial impact on students and institutional efforts to meet educational missions. Faculty have lost much of their ability to effect change on campus and drive the mission of education. Although there is currently no evidence that faculty have been completely silenced in shared governance, the trend points toward a loss of shared governance in the future. Should that come to fruition, administrators will enjoy complete control of postsecondary institutions, which may allow unregulated administrative bloat to continue along with a further decline in resources allocated to teaching efforts.


Baum, S., andJ. Scott-Clayton. 2013. Redesigning the Pell Grant Program for the Twenty-First Century. The Hamilton Project Discussion Paper 2013-04. Washington, DC: Brookings. Accessed January 29, 2018:

Bound, J., and S. Turner. 2002. Going to War and Going to College: Did World War II and the G. I. Bill Increase Educational Attainment for Returning Veterans? Journal of Labor Economics 20 (4): 784-815.

Burawoy, M. 2016. The Neoliberal University: Ascent of the Spiralists. Critical Sociology 42 (7-8): 941-42.

Business Wire. 2002. Quality Education Demands Full-Time Professors: Connecticut State University American Association of University Professors Pushes for Legislation to Cap Use of Part-Time Professors. News release, February.

Callier, V., R. H. Singiser, and N. L. Vanderford. 2015. The Parlous State of Academia: When Politics, Prestige and Proxies Overtake Higher Education's Teaching Mission. Australian Universities' Review 57 (1): 13-16. Accessed January 29, 2018:

Friedman, M. 2014. Top College Officials See Sizable Pay Raises. Arkansas Business, October 20.

Gelman, S. 2012. Adopting Ohio Senate Bill 5: The Role of the Public University Presidents. Albany Law Review 75 (1): 511-57. Accessed January 29, 2018:

Gladieux, L. E., and J. E. King. 1999. The Federal Government and Higher Education. In American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century: Social, Political, and Economic Challenges, ed. P. G. Altbach, R. O. Berdahl, and P. J. Gumport, 151-82. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gordon, G. 2013. Operational Audits of Support Departments as a Strategy to Improve Operating and Financial Efficiency in Public Higher Education. Internal Auditing 28 (2): 33-39.

Gordon, G. A., and M. Fischer. 2011. Accounting Strategy to Improve Public Higher Education Management. Journal of Accounting and Finance 11 (3): 11-25.

Harvard University. n.d. History. Accessed January 29, 2018:

Hudson, W. S. 1939. The Morison Myth Concerning the Founding of Harvard College. Church History 8 (2): 148-59.

June, A. W. 2017. 5 Forces That Drive Administrative 'Bloat.' Chronicle of Higher Education, May 25.

McLendon, M. K., S. B. Deaton, and J. C. Hearn. 2007. The Enactment of Reforms in State Governance of Higher Education: Testing the Political Instability Hypothesis. Journal of Higher Education 78 (6): 645-75. Accessed January 29, 2018:

Morris, L. V. 2010. The Problem of Defining and Communicating Quality in the 21st Century. Innovative Higher Education 35 (5): 295-96. Accessed January 29, 2018:

Mortenson, T. G. 2000. Poverty, Race, and the Failure of Public Policy: The Crisis of Access in Higher Education. Academe 86 (6): 38-43.

National Center for Education Statistics. n.d. Fast Facts: Expenditures. Accessed February 8, 2018:

Reindl, T. 2006. More Than a Body Count: Trends in Higher Education Staffing. College and University 81 (4): 53-54.

Rogers, J. 2012. 3 to 1: That's the Best Ratio of Tenure-Track Faculty to Administrators, a Study Concludes. Chronicle of Higher Education, November 1. Accessed January 29, 2018:

Samuels, B. 2009. Corporatizing the Instructorate: Ceding Authority to the Administrative Class. College Composition and Communication 61 (1): A8-A10.

Schloss, P. J., and K. M. Cragg. 2012. Organization and Administration in Higher Education. iBook reader version. New York: Routledge.

Schlosser, K. 2016. Review Essay: Imagining the Techno-Capitalist Future(s) of Higher Education. Geoforum 72 (2016): 34-37.

Slaper, T. F., and A. K. Foston. 2013. Onward and Upward with the Cost of College. Indiana Business Review 88 (2): 3-9. Accessed January 29, 2018:

United States Department of Veterans Affairs. 2012. Welcome to the GI Bill Web Site. Accessed July 1, 2012:

Wobbekind, R. L. 2012. On the Importance of Education. Business Economics 47 (2): 90-96.

by Thomas Wesley Williamson, E. Shannon Hughes, and Penny L. Head


THOMAS WESLEY WILLIAMSON, MS, MT (ASCP), is an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, where his main focus is on teaching in the Medical Laboratory Science Program. He is currently working toward completing an educational doctorate and is interested in studying the development of professional identity for medical laboratory professionals.

E. SHANNON HUGHES, PT, EDD, DPT, OCS, MTC, is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, where she also graduated with her master's in physical therapy in 2001. She received her doctor of physical therapy degree from the University of St. Augustine in 2007 and her doctor of education degree in adult education from the University of Memphis in 2017. Her research interests lie in admissions processes and movement sciences.

PENNY L. HEAD, PT, MS, SCS, ATC, is an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in orthopedics and sports science at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions.
COPYRIGHT 2018 Society for College and University Planning
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Williamson, Thomas Wesley; Hughes, E. Shannon; Head, Penny L.
Publication:Planning for Higher Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2018
Previous Article:An Approach to the Preparation or Revision of a Master Plan for a Nigerian Polytechnic.
Next Article:Design-Build Delivers Added Value to the University of North Georgia.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |