Bloat? I Don’t See No Stinkin’ Bloat

An organization representing State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) released a report a little while ago on staffing trends in higher education.  The report never names the report Brian Kisida, Jonathan Mills, and I released last year showing how administrative staff grew much more rapidly at research universities between 1993 and 2007 than did instructional and research staff.  But it is clear that this new report is meant to be a refutation of sorts to what it describes as “similar analyses of staffing patterns,” meaning our report.

Using the same federal data source, the new report comes to what appears to be a very different conclusion:

While total staff levels grew 18 percent from 2001 to 2009, the total number of FTE students grew by 29 percent, resulting in a decrease in the overall number of staff per 100 FTE students by 8 percent. “Most institutions improved their educational efficiency by educating more students with fewer staffing resources,” the SHEEO report stated.

What explains the seemingly different conclusions?  The SHEEO report does not group staff into the same categories that we do, it looks at a different and shorter time period, and it expands its scope to include non-research Associates degree and BA granting institutions, which comprise 91% of all of the sample they observe.  We focus on the other 9% of high research universities.

The most important of these differences is the way in which staff are grouped.  The point of our report was to compare growth in administrative staffing relative to instructional and research staffing.  We defined administrative staffing as a combination of the “Executive/Administrative and Managerial” and the “Other Professionals” categories, since these represent the higher-paid professionals who provide non-instructional and non-research services to students, from Deans to student counselors.  When we compare the growth of these folks to the growth in faculty we see that universities have been devoting much more of their newly obtained resources to these non-instructional and non-research services.  That is, our leading research universities are using new resources to stray further from their core missions of teaching and research and to expand into a host of peripheral services.

The SHEEO report concludes that institutions have “improved their educational efficiency” only by combining all staff into one big category.  If you dig deeper into their report where they break the results out by category, you can see that they also find that faculty staffing ratios have declined while senior executive and professional staffing ratios have grown.  In Table 4 the total ratio of Executive and Other Professional staff to students went from 5.04 per 100 students in 2001 to 5.07 in 2009, while faculty declined from 8.41 to 8.09 during the same time period.

That is, the SHEEO report confirms our basic finding.  It only concludes that higher ed has improved its efficiency by adopting the strange idea that greater efficiency means cutting faculty while growing executive and professional staff.

It is also worth noting that the SHEEO report does not go back to 1993 as we did.  We covered the years 1993 to 2007 because they were the earliest and most recent years for which data were available at the time we wrote the report.  If SHEEO had gone further back they would not have found the improved efficiency they claim to find since 2001.  In our report we found overall staffing levels increased from 31.4 full and part time staff per 100 students to 35.5 in 2007, an increase of 13.1% in overall staffing levels.  We also observed an increase if we look only at full time staff.  SHEEO is only able to find greater overall efficiency (defined strangely by them as cutting faculty even more than growing non-faculty professionals) by starting their analysis in 2001 rather than 1993.

This spin-job by SHEEO hasn’t gained much traction, so I hadn’t even noticed it for more than a month after its release.  But I’m sure that it is being waived around in meetings of boards of trustees if they begin to ask about administrative bloat as a result of our report last year.  Trustees shouldn’t be fooled.


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