Every once in a while, one of the newspapers or journals revisits the subject of higher education pay and perks, and the soaring value of these pay packages – but certainly not for, say, adjunct faculty members who teach half of all college courses for an average stipend of $3,000 per course. No, this largesse is reserved for the men and women who helm our non-profit colleges and universities.
In the most recent example of such stories, the Wall Street Journal cites average college presidential compensation of $428,250. Fully 34 institutions pay more than $1 million per year to their top officer, plus a boatload of dollars that do not show up in the current salary numbers — deferred compensation, post-presidential consulting contracts, guaranteed tenure positions at the pay rate of the highest paid tenured faculty member, etc.
Out of curiosity, I looked up the most recent available IRS 990 form for Ursinus College, where I served on faculty and staff for 13 years after my retirement from a corporate career. Sure enough, it listed then-president Bobby Fong with total 2012 compensation of $485,000 — not bad for a school of some 1650 students. Although that is about the size of a large high school, we have to go beyond that frame of reference and view these levels of compensation from the perspective that it is a non-profit, for goodness sake. I have to believe that there are many capable people who would be happy to perform these leadership roles for much less, in the spirit of service to students.
Of course, my concept of reasonable pay is unlikely to prevail. So if students, alumni, and other donors wish to fund these current pay packages, you may reasonably think that it’s their business to do so.
But you would think wrong. The financial support for this level of compensation goes well beyond those constituent groups, and actually includes all of us. Through government grants and guaranteed loans to students, many of whom default and almost half of whom fail to actually obtain a degree, we taxpayers are forced against our will to bankroll these pay packages. The federal loan money keeps rolling in, the compensation for the top officers grows exponentially, and we pay for it.
Based on the stated positions of Hillary Clinton (“debt-free college”) and Bernie Sanders (“free college”), I’m sure that that the presidents and CEO’s of colleges and universities are looking ahead to even better times — at least for them.