Growth in College Staffing Levels Slows, Relative to Enrollment, Report Says

May 25, 2011

Growth in enrollments has outpaced growth in public college faculty and staff in recent years, according to a new report issued by the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

Between 2001 and 2009, public universities saw an 8-percent reduction in the number of staff members per 100 full-time-equivalent students, says the report, "Staffing Trends in Public Colleges and Universities: A National Analysis 2001-2009." Though both the number of staff and enrollment increased in that time frame, enrollment increased faster.

Paul E. Lingenfelter, president of the executive-officers' group, said that staffing trends parallel dollars available for students in higher education.

"The recession of 2008 hit, and we had another surge in enrollment without a surge in money," he said.

The decline in staff with respect to student headcounts runs counter to a trend seen over a longer period, in which staffing growth had outpaced growth in enrollment. A 2009 report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity showed an increase in staff with respect to students between 1987 and 2007. But the new report looks at a much shorter time frame and includes the period following the economic downturn of 2008.

"Since 2000, public universities, I think all universities, have been forced to become a little bit more cost conscious about their staffing," said Richard Vedder, director for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

Some staffing categories saw bigger drops with respect to enrollment than others. While staff classified as clerical, secretarial, or technical workers saw the largest decline, at 24 percent, staff classified as "other professionals" grew 6 percent across all two- and four-year public institutions.

While faculty-to-student ratios declined on the whole, the role of part-time faculty actually increased. Full-time faculty per student declined by roughly 9 percent from 2001 to 2009, while part-time staff per student grew by 2 percent.

"Institutions are using more adjunct faculty as a way of coping with resource constraint and enrollment growth," Mr. Lingenfelter said. "My guess is that will continue."

Mr. Lingenfelter said the findings of his group's report indicate that colleges are becoming more productive, by using full-time faculty and staff where their skills are most relevant and substituting part-time employees where they can.

But other researchers expressed some caution.

"This is body count, not dollar count," said Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, who speculated that people classified as "other professionals" may be making high salaries.

Mr. Vedder also said that while he found the report "encouraging," colleges may not be doing more with less, and may simply be outsourcing a lot of their tasks. He added that some administrators and secretaries may have been reclassified by colleges, which self-reported the figures the report is based on to the U.S. Department of Education.

"I'm not sure that we're having such a huge decline in administrative bloat at the university," he said. "I think we may have some reclassifications going on there."