Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

A War of Numbers


Have you ever noticed that higher education can resemble a war zone? The tumultuous confrontations are usually a battle of words, or sometimes of numbers. A new conflict is over whether or not “administrative bloat” is to blame for rising costs.

The latest salvo comes from a study by the State Higher Education Executive Officers or SHEEO, “Staffing Trends in Public Colleges and Universities.” It is an indirect rebuttal to a study from the Goldwater Institute called “Administrative Bloat at American Universities.”

SHEEO writes: “Between 2001 and 2009, America’s public colleges and universities experienced a decline in total staff per 100 student FTE [full-time-equivalent students].”

As you may remember, the Goldwater Institute said something quite different in August: “Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent.”

So, has higher education experienced a rise in administrative overhead — or a decline? I have my suspicions, but without careful study, I don’t really know. I am eager to hear Jay P. Greene, the lead author of the Goldwater study and the well-known head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, respond to SHEEO.

Until then, a couple of comments must suffice. The source of both studies is essentially the same: federal IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) data. But there are differences, starting, obviously, with different spans of time. The kinds of colleges are also different. SHEEO’s group consists of only public schools and is heavily weighted toward community colleges, while Goldwater includes only 198 “leading” four-year schools, public and private. Even the definitions of “administrators” are different — Goldwater combines two categories; SHEEO’s conclusion is based on total staffing figures (although it also breaks them down).

My guess is that the choice of two different universes of schools is the biggest factor explaining the differences. But let’s bring in the experts and fire a few more rounds of ammunition. Maybe we’ll learn something.


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