Where the Money Is (Not) At

Perhaps with each tuition bill, students should receive a breakdown of how their dollars are spent / Creative Commons

February 16, 2015

I teach a capstone for history majors that attracts students who plan to become high-school teachers or pursue other history-related careers. In a recent class discussion, one of my students commented dismissively on the "commercialization" of history in academe. When I asked what he meant, he said he was referring to professors making all that money writing books.

I laughed. And then I nearly cried, thinking about the royalty check for 30 Euros (or about $34) sitting on my desk from European sales of my most recent book. (Barbados here I come!)

I explained to the students that academic books offer trivial-to-nonexistent financial returns. They were skeptical. The view that professors are making a decent amount of cash from book sales is obviously out there, as well as the notion that we are coasting along on our cushy university salaries.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m paid a good salary by my institution. (Thank goodness I’m not trying to scrape a living from those royalties.) Salaries at my university are on a scale that is public information on the university website. While there is no list of names attached to specific salaries (as is available in some places, under "sunshine" laws), any of my students could look at the scale for my rank and know within a few grand how much I get paid each year. I doubt they’d find my salary lavish.

I’ve actually had a couple of students ask me point-blank how much I get paid. They wanted to know how my salary compared with what they would earn teaching high school. But a lot of colleges and universities aren’t required to keep their salary information publicly available, so the sense that academics all make a fortune is perpetuated among the public—especially among parents writing ever-larger tuition checks.

Not long ago I mentioned the parlous academic job market to a friend who works on Wall Street. He said that academics had been doing too well for too long, implying that the poor job outlook was some kind of natural market correction. I sat there slack-jawed, and attempted to explain that all the money goes to support new buildings, coaching staff, administrative salaries, excessive regulations, and fancy climbing walls for undergraduates—as opposed to being spent hiring faculty members. But my friend brushed that off as my inability to face market realities.

About six months later he apologized, having discovered that his son’s college adviser—a full professor at an elite Ivy League institution—earned $80,000. He had been convinced that faculty salaries were routinely in the six figures.

It’s obvious that students (and their parents) have only the vaguest sense of where their tuition money goes. They assume (not unreasonably) that it is funneled in large part to those people that students actually interact with: faculty members, librarians, advisers and support-staff employees.

Those of us within academe are familiar with administrative bloat, and the ever-growing layers of professional staff members drawing salaries under various themes relating to the university’s "mission statement." But that reality is largely invisible to most people outside the university.

Students might be able to name their university president or vice-chancellor, but not the massive web of deans, associate deans, and assistants. Some of those administrative staffers have little contact with faculty, let alone with students. But the forces of this shadow university are growing in scope, and faculty members seem powerless to resist.

So I’d like to offer a solution. In Britain recently, taxpayers have been issued pie charts, demonstrating how their taxes are spent. Perhaps students could receive a similar breakdown with each tuition bill? What proportion of tuition goes to facility maintenance (gardeners, janitors, electricity, security)? How much to libraries and labs? How much to faculty salaries? And yes, how much to the salaries of administrators and their staff members?

Maybe even more effective: Create a similar pie chart for potential donors. Attach a note: "Please give money so we can send the deputy dean of whatever on a business-class junket to discuss stakeholder governance at an educational summit in Barcelona or Buenos Aires." That doesn’t have quite the same ring as "support tomorrow’s leaders" or "give disadvantaged students access to college."

In Hungary, taxpayers can designate how they’d like to allocate a small amount of their taxes. Perhaps students could choose where a percentage of their tuition gets spent? It would be interesting to see how much they want to throw our way as opposed to spending it on the gym, library, or food court.

Greater transparency might even lead to more donations. Meanwhile, students who don’t feel they’re getting their money’s worth would see why that might be the case.

Katrina Gulliver is a lecturer in the humanities at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Her website is, and you can follow her on Twitter: @katrinagulliver.