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News >  Column

Shawn Vestal: 61 percent growth in WSU students over past 30 years is nothing compared to 861 percent growth in administrators

UPDATED: Mon., March 11, 2019, 1:35 p.m.

WSU’s cheerleaders and band perform during a Holiday Bowl battle of the bands with Michigan State on Wednesday, December 27, 2017, in San Diego, Calif. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU’s cheerleaders and band perform during a Holiday Bowl battle of the bands with Michigan State on Wednesday, December 27, 2017, in San Diego, Calif. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A lot has changed at Washington State University in the past 30 years.

The number of students attending the university has grown dramatically – by 61 percent between 1988 and 2018.

The number of full-time faculty members has grown quite a bit, too, though it hasn’t kept pace – rising 41 percent.

The number of grad students enlisted to teach has grown by 52 percent.

Campuses have been added. A new medical school opened. The football team started playing moneyball and got good.

But nothing – nothing – has grown in the universe of WSU like the number of administrators. It’s the bamboo of the university system.

In 1988, there were the equivalent of 208 full-time employees classified as administrative or professional staff, according to a chart compiled by the WSU Office of Institutional Research. By last academic year, 2017-18, that had risen to 1,999.

That’s an increase of 861 percent.

Only tuition, which grew by 482 percent, grew at a rate anywhere near the dramatic increase in vice presidents and deans and associate deans and chancellors and chairs and directors. And there are now 64 WSU employees earning more than $250,000 annually, according to the state database of employee salaries.

Most of those who aren’t coaches are administrators.

Which of course raises – again – the question: How much of the brutal increase in the cost of college is going to pay not for education, but administration?

This question is not so easy to answer, and the situation is not unique to WSU by any means. The trend has raced on for decades, and critics have long identified it as one factor driving up costs for students.

Across the country, tuition has risen dramatically in recent decades. Coupled with an erosion of student financial support, that has produced an explosion of educational indebtedness. We are giving too many young people a wrong-footed, debt-burdened start to life that’s a raw deal compared to what most of us who went to college a couple of decades ago enjoyed.

A 2017 paper by a pair of George Mason University professors concluded that most of the proceeds from that rising tuition revenue have gone into “auxiliary” non-instructional spending.

The authors of the paper, titled “The Changing of the Guard: The Political Economy of Administrative Bloat in Higher Education,” show that rising administrative spending has been paralleled by reduced classroom spending. Between 1980s and 2009, instructional spending grew the least of four categories: student services, academic support, institutional support and instruction.

Instructional spending per student rose 39 percent from 1993 to 2007, while administrative spending per student rose 61 percent, the authors said.

“Universities have increased spending, but very little of that increased spending has been related to classroom instruction; rather, it is being directed toward non-classroom costs,” the authors wrote. “As a result, there has been a growth in academic bureaucracies, as universities focus on hiring employees to manage or administer people, programs, and regulations. Between 2001 and 2011, these sorts of hires have increased 50% faster than the number of classroom instructors.”

In 2014, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting analyzed the expansion of administrative jobs at all U.S. colleges and universities between 1987 and 2012. They found an average of 87 new administrative or professional employees were hired at some college in America every working day during that period.

So it’s hardly a WSU-specific issue. Comparative figures for that time frame weren’t immediately available this week for Eastern Washington University or the University of Washington.

Phil Weiler, vice president for marketing and communications for WSU, noted there are several reasons more administrators are needed at the university now than in years past. WSU has added a lot of campuses and programs – a new campus in Everett last year, a new medical school in Spokane, and ambitious public health initatives.

In addition, there has been an increased need for administrators to manage an expansion of state and federal regulations, as well as to direct university efforts to raise funds and offer a range of non-traditional programs such as online education or professional development courses. And today’s students have much higher expectations for services.

However, Weiler wrote in an email, there is nascent effort among research universities to evaluate their levels of administration and compare institutions.

Which is overdue. As is an examination of the flip side of this coin: how the concentration of resources at the top is affecting that ever-more-costly education that we are offering our young people.