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Inflated college administrator salaries are hurting students

VCU President Michael Rao needs all the income he can get if he's going to censor all that free speech on his college campus. (Photo via Richmond Times Dispatch)

VCU President Michael Rao needs all the income he can get if he’s going to censor all that free speech on his college campus. (Photo via Richmond Times Dispatch)

Attending an American college is invariably expensive.

Tuition fees might be high, but after buying course books, accommodation, and food, etc. other costs quickly rack up. And we know about the structural problems at many colleges. Notably, anti-free speech morons and political biases.

Yet, as the Richmond Times reported yesterday, those charged with making things better – senior administrators – are actually making matters worse. Take the President of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Michael Rao. According to the Times, “Rao, in his seventh year as VCU President, received a total compensation package worth $900,940.” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Other Virginia college administrators also make good money. In the same period, Christopher Newport University President, Paul Trible, made $844,245. University of Virginia President, Teresa Sullivan, made $733,800. Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands made $717,500. George Mason President Angel Cabrera made $644,881.

That’s money redistributed from students and taxpayers.

But get this. Even the President of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), James Peay, made $612,500. For a college so proudly dedicated to a warrior ethos of Spartan rectitude, that’s an extraordinarily high figure. And as a retired four-star general officer, Peay also likely has a pension worth at least $200,000 a year.

Of course, this wage-inflation doesn’t just afflict Virginia. As the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland noted in February, national college President “median pay is $301,153, and the mean is $377,261, both of which are well into the 99th percentile of compensation for wage earners in the United States.” According to the College and University Professional Administration for Human Resources (CUPA-HR), the vast majority of senior administrators make well over $100,000 annually. On average, professors also earn over $102,000 a year.

These salaries hurt students. Consider a 2014 paper from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). It showed that in 2013, Ohio State University’s then-President, E. Gordon Gee earned a staggering $6.1 million. Notably, the IPS also found that between 2010 and 2012, OSU hired 670 new administrators but only 45 permanent faculty members.

These statistics raise an obvious concern: are taxpayers and college students getting value for money?

I think not. First off, colleges supposedly serve the public. Just as public executive salaries in other fields are restrained for taxpayer benefit, we should expect the same of college institutions. These salaries show taxpayers are being taken for a ride. And college students also suffer from this malaise of greed. After all, they are the ones who must take out student loans to pay for college. For every unnecessary hire or expensive salary, a college makes, students have to pony up.

It shouldn’t be this way. As I’ve explained, a strength of European colleges is financial frugality. Rather than buying the latest technology, furnishing hotel-like accommodations, and sponsoring extravagant building projects, European colleges focus on the basics: good lecturers and lower fees. They also reduce costs by keeping administrative staffs trim and by paying comparatively lower salaries to faculty. These institutions prioritize accessible education over outlandish compensation. We should learn from their example.

Ultimately, it’s right that students bear the primary responsibility for higher education costs. Taxpayers who didn’t attend college shouldn’t overly subsidize the benefits of others. That’s a problem with European higher-education, and one we shouldn’t replicate. But it’s also inexcusable that so many are making such vast salaries off the back of students and taxpayers.


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