Officials' Pay at Public Colleges Rises Faster Than at Private Ones

March 03, 2014

The median base salary of senior administrators at American public universities rose by 2.5 percent in the 2014 fiscal year, a rate slightly higher than that at private universities, according to a report being released this week that’s based on a survey by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. The report marked the first time in four years that the rate of salary growth for administrators at public colleges outpaced that of their peers at private ones.

Administrators’ salaries climbed by 2.3 percent at private universities and by 2.4 percent over all, comfortably outpacing the 1.5-percent rate of inflation in 2013. The increases signal that more institutions seem to be rebounding from the recession, at least enough to be able to carve out pay raises for senior officials.

"This has been a significant challenge during the last several years due to the economy," said Andy Brantley, president of the human-­resources association. "Our hope is that in order for higher education to continue to recruit and retain employees, we’ll see the trend of increase continuing to match or outpace inflation."

Among the senior administrators whose salaries were surveyed were chief executives of college systems and single institutions, chief financial officers, chief academic officers, and deans. The association’s report reflects the pay of 54,853 individuals in 191 positions at 1,247 four-year and two-year institutions. Of the colleges surveyed, 48 percent were public and 52 percent were private.

The median salary for senior administrators at public universities stagnated in recent years, suffering two years without an increase, 2010 and 2011. Administrators’ salaries at public institutions rose by 1.5 percent in 2012 and by 2 percent in 2013 but still lagged behind gains at private institutions, where administrators’ pay rose by 2.5 percent in 2013.

This year’s rise in pay at public institutions reflected the recovery of state economies, Mr. Brantley said. While that trend is promising, he noted that the recovery remains uneven across states and institutions.

Extra Perks

Medical professionals again eclipsed their colleagues on the list of highest-paid administrators. Deans of medicine topped the list, with median pay of $484,730, a 9-percent increase over 2013. Chief hospital administrators followed them with median pay of $426,002.

The median base pay of chief executives of university systems and of colleges saw slim gains from last year. Leaders of systems earned a medium base pay of $370,940, an increase of less than $500. Presidents of single institutions made $275,000, on average, an increase of $700 from last year.

Base salary represents only a portion of administrators’ full income, and other forms of compensation are becoming more common, the survey found. About 58 percent of system presidents and nearly 70 percent of single-institution presidents received a car or car allowance, according to the report.

The most common executive-­only benefits at colleges in the association’s survey were performance-based incentives, often in the form of bonuses, designed to push priorities like improved retention rates or fund-raising goals, Mr. Brantley said. More than 25 percent of single-institution presidents and almost 15 percent of chief athletic administrators had the opportunity to earn performance-based incentives, according to the report.

Mr. Brantley said those percentages have grown, especially at large research institutions, as more executives are recruited from the private sector. They come, he said, wanting compensation opportunities similar to those available in their previous jobs.

"They’re frequently controversial because it’s a different compensation strategy than has traditionally been employed," Mr. Brantley said of performance-based incentives.

Despite an uptick in the economy, universities remain reluctant to plan future pay increases. The survey found that only about 25 percent of institutions had set goals for 2014-15 pay raises. As long as revenues remain uncertain and expenses for services and facilities continue to mount, Mr. Brantley said, universities will hesitate to plan the 3-percent annual pay increases that were once the norm.