What the Articles About Administrative Bloat did not Mention

It made for great copy between the stories about the record snowfalls and the bitter cold of the winter of 2014. Articles written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, and USA Today included headlines such as “Administrator Hiring Drove 28% Boom in Higher-Ed Work Force” (Carlson, 2014); “College Work Forces Grew, But Not as Fast as Enrollment” (Rivard, 2014); and “College Hiring: Helping Students or Padding Payrolls?”  (Marklein, 2014). So began another spate of articles on the high cost of higher education.

According to Carlson (2014), college is expensive because new administrative staff positions drove a 28% expansion of the higher-education workforce from 2000 to 2012.  Several authors seem to accept this statement at face value, advancing the notion that administrative staff positions are superfluous, do not add value to institutions, and do not support student learning and development (Ginsberg, 2011).  Very little has been included or written to indicate that there may be valid reasons for the increase in administrative staff positions—causes that mostly emanate from outside of the academy.

Administrative Bloat?

‘Administrative bloat’ is a term often used to describe the reported phenomenon—a term both catchy enough to draw attention and convincing enough to limit a more complex, nuanced analysis of this issue.  The same week several articles were published about administrative staff bloat in higher education, other articles were published that shed evidence into the reasons behind increases in administrative staff positions. For example, DeSantis (2014) reported that the University of Connecticut’s response to sexual assaults and other campus crimes included hiring staff specifically designated to work with victims of sexual assault as part of their duties.

Campus Safety

The federal government’s interest in preventing sexual assault on college and university campuses has been in the news for the better part of three years since the release of the now infamous ‘Dear Colleague’ letter in April 2011 (Ali, 2011).  The impact of this letter, played out at the University of Connecticut and elsewhere, has included the creation of new administrative staff positions related to student safety. However, this type of growth in student services positions was not concurrently published alongside the articles regarding administrative bloat.

The federal government’s interest in sexual assault prevention is but one example of increased government involvement in how colleges and universities are expected to manage the student experience.  The phrase ‘unfunded mandate’ has come to define the spate of government regulations that have in part fueled the need for new administrative staff.  Mettler (2014) described in-depth the impact of changes in public policy on the higher education landscape—changes that have reshaped how 21st century colleges and universities are perceived, funded, and run.

Federal Laws

Examples of federal government initiatives that have resulted in additions to college and university administrative staffs include the Americans with Disabilities Act and the new G.I. Bill.  Educational theorists have written extensively that increased access to higher education requires expanded support services and a level of student assistance that goes beyond that which faculty members have traditionally been able to provide.  New federal government programs lead to increases in administrative staff not because colleges and universities can add to their administrative ranks, but because it is a prerequisite to meeting the spirit and letter of new laws and directives intended to promote student access, persistence, and achievement.

Rise of Adjunct Faculty

Even faculty members can no longer be expected to provide the direct level of student support they traditionally provided.  Among the differences between the colleges and universities of the last generation and today is the transformation of what used to be a full-time professoriate to the part-time, adjunct, and contingent faculty of the current era.  The connection between the consequences of this trend and so-called administrative bloat seem to have eluded both the journalists who report on higher education and the self-appointed crusaders who yearn for a return to earlier visions of higher education.

Authors in both the higher education and mainstream media outlets have failed to connect the dots that, when institutions hire part-time faculty members instead of full-time faculty members, they also have to hire administrative staff members to do the things that full-time faculty do besides teach, such as advise students.  It is not a criticism of the adjunct teaching professional to state that they do not provide the same level of student support that full-time faculty do—it is just not humanly possible, as they scurry from course to course or campus to campus, piecing together a barely livable wage.  In fact, adjunct staffing has grown from 20% of all higher education faculty in 1970 to almost 50% today (The Democratic Staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, 2014).  How could it be that the connection between the replacement of full-time teachers with part-time teachers and the subsequent growth in the number of administrators did not enter into the news accounts of the trend of increased numbers of administrators?

Mental Health Concerns

The increased prevalence of mental health concerns on college and university campuses, and high profile incidents of campus violence are further evidence of the connection between campus trends and the legitimate need for colleges and universities to hire more student support and campus safety personnel.  Journalists have been quick to write about the campus amenities race that has led to the sprouting of recreational climbing walls and other perquisites and have linked this phenomenon to increased college costs (Rubin, 2014).  Neglected for the most part by the media is the fact that colleges and universities have been compelled to add staff members to help manage campus mental health challenges, and that, even with these additions, campuses have for the most part failed to meet this increasing demand.

Increasing Campus Diversity

Even the most casual observer of higher education is aware of the increasing diversity of our college and university campuses, and in the United States overall.  On most campuses, increasing student diversity has resulted in the addition of staff to support a multicultural student body.  There is ample research that shows the contributions that the persons in these positions provide in terms of student retention and success.  It is likely, however, that the addition of these administrative staff positions has also contributed to the growth of the number of administrative staff hires in recent years.

Decreased Financial Support

And then there are the dramatic cuts in state support for higher education that have played havoc with college and university budgets in the 21st century.  With reduced state support (Lederman, 2014), colleges and universities have increasingly looked elsewhere for revenue, by sponsoring conferences, camps, institutes, and other income generators intended to offset declines in state funding.  These programs require coordination and oversight from administrative staff, and I would venture that there is a connection between this trend and increases in administrative staffing in higher education.


All of this adds up to what seems to be at least six valid reasons for the expansion of administrative staff positions in higher education:  increasing federal involvement in higher education; the proliferation of the part-time professoriate; the heightened concern about campus violence, sexual and otherwise; the demand for mental health services on campuses; increasing diversity of college and university students; and declining state support for higher education.  The term bloat conveys excessiveness.  Are institutional responses to the demand for student mental health services, support services for veterans, campus safety, and increasing federal intervention alongside decreasing state support for higher education truly excessive?  Or are they in line with societal expectations for safeguarding the student welfare?

Perhaps it is expectations for support that have grown, rather than our penchant for administrating, counseling, and mentoring.  It is unlikely that those who are sounding the alarm about administrative bloat are longing for campuses that do not support students in need, or veterans, or do not want campuses that are actively combatting sexual violence.  Colleges and universities need full-time faculty to fulfill their basic mission, and college and university students and their parents need and expect the support services overseen by administrators to promote students’ academic and personal development and their success in college and beyond.  Students of today do not expect fewer student support personnel than the students of yesteryear:  they expect more.

It should be noted that the student voice was noticeably missing from all of the news reports on the increasing number of administrators.  I suspect that students and their parents have many stories about their encounters with student services administrative staff, and could earnestly speak to why they exist, why they think they have grown in number, and the value they add on college and university campuses, especially in times of personal crisis or when students are in need.  These stories would portray a more complete picture of the college and university of today, which includes administrators providing critical support services to students in need on a daily basis, and a diminished number of full-time faculty to assist in that process.

Discussion Questions

  1. Are there other reasons for the expansion of administrative staff positions in higher education that were not mentioned in the article?
  2. How can those of us in the field of student development better convey greater understanding of our role in the educational enterprise to policy makers, the mass media and the general public?


Ali, R.  (2011, April 4).  Dear colleague letter.  Washington, D.C.  United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.  Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201104.html

Carlson, S.  (2014, February 5).  Administrator hiring drove 28% boom in higher-ed work force. The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Administrator-Hiring-Drove-28-/144519/

DeSantis, N.  (2014, February 7).  UConn bolsters efforts against sex assaults and other campus crimes.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/uconn-bolster-efforts-against-sex-assaults-and-other-campus-crimes/72465

Ginsberg, B. (2011). The fall of the faculty:  The rise of the all-administrative university and why it matters.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff (January, 2014).  The just-in-time professor:  A staff report summarizing e-forum responses on the working conditions of contingent faculty in higher education.  Retrieved from http://democrats.edworkforce.house.gov/publication/just-time-professor-staff-report-summarizing-eforum-responses-working-conditions

Lederman, D.  (October 27, 2014).  The states’ “great retreat.” Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/10/27how-reverse-and-prevent-state-disinvestment-higher-education

Marklein, M.  (2014, February 5).  College hiring:  Helping students or padding payrolls?  USA Today.  Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/02/05/labor-intensive-or-labor-expensive/4635485/

Mettler, S. (2014). Degrees of inequality:  How the politics of higher education sabotaged the American dream.  New York, NY: Basic Books.

Rivard, R.  (2014, February 5).  College work forces grew, but not as fast as enrollment. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/02/05/college-work-forces-grew-not-fast-enrollment

Rubin, C.  (2014, September 19).  Making a splash on campus:  College recreation now includes pool parties and river rides. The New York Times.  Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/21/fashion/college-recreation-now-includes -pool-parties-and-river-rides.html?_r=0

About the Author

Robert A. Bonfiglio is Vice President for Student and Campus Life at SUNY Geneseo and has been recognized by ACPA – College Student Educators International with its 2013 Excellence in Practice award.  

Please e-mail inquiries to Robert A. Bonfiglio.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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