The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Changing the Prescription for America’s Public Universities

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


It is much easier to take a pill than to overhaul a lifestyle.  The word “free” was the prescription offered by some in the presidential primaries to millennials in order to ease the crushing burden of skyrocketing student debt.  However, the problem with America’s public universities is not a lack of public funding. 

The main drivers of spiraling costs in public universities are wasteful administrative bloat and inefficient spending.  These cannot be cured with a magic pill.  Instead of free tuition, public university students and elected representatives should be advocating for a radical lifestyle change for universities that focuses on eliminating grotesque administrator expansion and greed.

According to a February 6, 2014 study by the New England Center of Investigative Reporting and the American Institutes for Research, “the number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students or faculty.”  One might also expect corresponding growth in faculty, however, universities have instead chosen to hire part-time assistants and teacher aids.  Instead of investing in the education of students, state universities across the country are spending taxpayer money on expanding administration, thereby watering down the quality of classes offered.

Along with an increase in positions, public university administrators have been awarded increasingly profligate salaries.  According to a September 16, 2015 Dayton Daily news article, “… payroll for 14 Ohio public universities grew by nearly $1.4 billion over the past decade to $4.6 billion in 2013,” or more than 40 percent.  Lavish raises for collegiate administrators are a national trend.  On June 16, 2015 CNBC reported analysis by the Delta Cost Project that “public and private colleges and universities expanded their payrolls by 28 percent between 2000 and 2012, more than 50 percent faster than the previous decade.” 

Tuition caps are one prescription devised by some state politicians to keep state universities’ spending reined in, but have produced mixed results.  In the 2012-2013 school year, tuition caps appeared to ease the burden for Ohio State students.  However, a study released by the Review of Higher Education in Summer 2016 showed that most schools with tuition caps skirted the law by increasing student fees.  Costs for college are still skyrocketing without any plan in place to keep schools accountable and on a steady budget.

One rationalization for increased student costs is that state and federal spending on higher education has decreased.  While there has been a decrease in spending per student, on April 4, 2015 The New York Times reported that “state appropriations reached a record inflation-adjusted high of $86.6 billion in 2009.  They declined as a consequence of the Great Recession, but have since risen to $81 billion … It is disingenuous to call a large increase in public spending a “cut,” as some university administrators do, because a huge programmatic expansion features somewhat lower per capita subsidies.”  The state and federal governments are prioritizing higher education but cannot, and should not, keep up with the sharp increases in admission since the 1970s.

The solution to this problem is not to spend additional money that will inevitably bleed cash into the coffers of administrators.  Neither is the answer a blank check written to schools so that the government can offer “free” education.  Rather, colleges and universities should pursue every allegation of corruption, cut administrator salaries, and eliminate unnecessary administrator jobs on campuses.

  -- Leah Lagoudis

 The Texas A&M University System has provided a model.  For the past five years it has slashed administrator positions from 320 to 260.  On January 11, 2015, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp wrote: “to date, our administrative review has identified $230 million in savings opportunities over the next five years … We want your legislators to know that when they send your tax dollars to the Texas A&M University System, we will treat those dollars with respect.” 

Instead of looking to the federal government for painkillers, universities across the country should follow the same prescription as Texas A&M and begin implementing drastic lifestyle changes that will save money for both taxpayers and public university students.

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