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Shawn Vestal: Universities should look at their out-of-classroom spending growth before they start slashing budgets

Students walk through campus between classes on Friday, April 12, 2019, in Cheney, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Students walk through campus between classes on Friday, April 12, 2019, in Cheney, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

As Eastern Washington University wades into the thicket of budget cutting by 3.5% here and 3.5% there, there’s another percentage that’s worth consideration.

One hundred and fifty-five percent.

That’s the growth of administrative and professional positions at EWU between 1995 and 2019, a level of expansion that is three times the rate of growth in students during that period and more than 10 times the rate of growth in instructional staff, from full professors to part-time graduate students.

During nearly a quarter-century in which Eastern’s student population increased by 56%, the growth in faculty ranks crept upward by just 12%.

That disparity is a hallmark in higher ed everywhere you look. Administrative hiring has the biggest growth rate of almost anything in the business, not counting tuition, and plenty of schools have a worse case of it than Eastern does.

Down the road in Pullman, the expansion of the administrative/professional class has eclipsed the growth of instructional employment by an even greater degree – since 1988, administrative employment at WSU has risen 861%. Since 1995 – as a point of comparison with the EWU figures above – WSU’s administrative class has grown by 240%.

Everywhere you look in higher ed, it’s the same, and critics of “academic bloat” note the particular irony that, as enrollments climb, tuition increases, and the burden on students and families grows exponentially, even at a relatively affordable school like EWU, the piece of the financial pie that goes toward actual education shrinks.

Two George Mason University professors published an analysis in 2017 that found universities nationwide have dramatically increased spending between 1993 and 2007, but that they increased instructional spending the least of four categories. Administrative spending rose 61% per student; instructional spending rose 39%.

Spending on student services and academic support also grew more than instructional spending, according to the paper, “The Changing of the Guard: The Political Economy of Administrative Bloat in Higher Education.”

All this has occurred during a period when the costs borne by students and families have increased dramatically. Annual tuition increases that rise far beyond the rate of inflation – 6%, 7%, 8%, 14% – have been spread across the recent decades at Washington’s public universities almost without interruption, as they are at universities nationwide. EWU is the state’s most affordable school, and yet its tuition has more than tripled during the same years when its administrative ranks were growing by 155%.

(Disclosure: I teach occasionally at EWU in the creative writing program and am teaching a course there now.)

These increases, coupled with reductions in financial aid and a steep increase in student borrowing, produce a perverse dynamic: The system that is supposed to help young people get off to a strong start in their adult lives – the system we raise children to believe they must enter if they are to be successful – saddles them with a massive debt right at the beginning of those lives, unless they happen to be rich.

Whether “administrative bloat” is the cause of that is a matter of some debate. Many, like the authors of “The Changing of the Guard,” see it as obviously so – the costs of administrative hiring have grown so much that they must be a significant driver of higher tuition, if not the main diver.

Others argue that it’s more the fault of the overarching retreat of state funding for higher education – Washington used to cover a significantly larger portion of the cost of higher education, a responsibility it has been shifting, year by year, onto students.

But it’s not an either-or. It’s an and. If anything, the fact that the administrative expansion has occurred during this period of eroding state support makes it worse, in terms of the institutional priorities and consideration for student cost.

University officials often cite the need for more administrators to deal with an ever-more demanding set of regulatory requirements, and with the changing nature of the university experience itself, with its heightened focus on student services and amenities.

Dave Meany, director of communications at EWU, said that university’s “administrative/professional” category of employment includes many positions, such as financial aid adviser and academic counselor, that are not “administrators” in the traditional sense. Students expect such services now to a much greater degree than they did 20 years ago, he said.

“From 1995 to the present we have seen a large expansion in student services,” he said. “The modern university is not just about instruction, it’s also about providing these support services to retain students and help them graduate.”

My attempts over the course of several weeks to obtain more detailed, specific breakdowns by employment for recent decades from EWU were not successful, including separations of full-time faculty from part timers, and a breakdown of service-oriented administrators versus the managerial class.

Repeatedly, the university said it did not have such information, or could not provide comparative figures between different eras.

And so, we have this bottom line, a point of consideration as the university shaves costs: The biggest spending growth in recent years at EWU, by a factor of more than 10, has been outside the classroom.