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Mythbusting 'Administrative Bloat' in Student Affairs

July 20, 2016 Dr. Jeanna Mastrodicasa University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

It is without debate that college spending is increasing and states’ contributions to higher education are decreasing.  Many arguments are out there as to why tuition costs are going up and what should be done.  Most states spent less per student in 2014 than they did five years earlier, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers and reported by the Pew Charitable Trusts.  Yet there have been several articles bemoaning the increase in spending on administrators, calling it “administrative bloat” and even going so far as to say that this is the clear block to any reform in higher education. 

Beyond our work in student affairs, there is an increase in grant management and oversight, financial reporting, information technology, data security, library database access, and measures of accountability that states and the federal government have put into place that require staff time and effort without any additional funding.  Additionally there is a lack of funding for aging facilities which include deferred maintenance, as well as changes to meet new codes for fire safety and ADA accessibility and even supporting the modern classroom. 

Meanwhile, the Delta Cost Project shows a 22.3 percent increase in student services (which includes admissions, financial aid, registrar functions, and traditional student affairs services) over the past decade at research universities.  They report that “public and private institutions increased spending on instruction from 2012 to 2013, but spending on non-instructional student services and many administrative functions grew faster…The rise in student services spending is an ongoing trend. Student services was among the fastest growing spending categories during the prior decade—particularly at private institutions and selective public institutions, where spending per student increased by more than 20 percent between 2003 and 2013.”

Student affairs professionals are counted as administrators in these reports denouncing administrative bloat.  So are we bloat? 

Matt Reed spoke up in defense of our work in his column responding to Paul F. Campos’ New York Times Opinion column “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much,” making some excellent arguments about how colleges and universities are “serving far more students, and doing so with much less help per student.”  True, and student affairs people know that.  Student affairs is known for being the people who do more with less on campus and are often the first to be offered up when there are budget cuts. 

Student affairs has expanded in areas in response to federal mandates such as Title IX, student conduct, Clery reporting, and financial aid.  The New York Times reported that colleges are spending millions of dollars to deal with sexual misconduct issues.  As the Delta Cost project reported, there are many reasons why, including our expansion in response to concerns and expectations related to student safety and increased mental health issues: behavioral consultation teams (who review students of concern in the post-Virginia Tech era), increased security and policing, and adding counselors to address the vast demand on mental health services.  We now have social media which impacts the way students communicate, gather information, and distract them from learning. 

Many state systems (such as Florida) are using performance metrics to allocate funding to universities, and metrics include graduation rates, retention rates, employment rate and salary for graduates among others.  Student affairs professionals know that their work positively impacts student success.  Using data (which costs money and time to gather), we can make interventions to help more students succeed.  We include academic advisors, career counselors, orientation directors, housing professionals, and many others who all work for student success with the ultimate goal of producing an employable college graduate who is a resilient adult.

Student affairs professionals also know that challenging and supporting the whole student means that a student might have specific barriers to success, and we help students develop the skills to overcome these barriers.  We provide specific support to at-risk students using research and best practices to impact those students positively.  Examples include first generation students, who have different levels of experience and family support where student affairs has begun new initiatives to educate the parents as well; low income students, who often have to work to pay to support themselves and borrow a lot of money; and students from other historically underrepresented backgrounds.  We focus on issues such as food insecurity and providing case management support similar to social work to help students be successful. 

This is where the intersection of student affairs, public policy, and assessment all come together.  What can student affairs do better?  Collect and use data to tell the story of the impact of our work using the metrics that outside entities care about:  persistence, retention, student success, employment, and average salary.  There is now even a College Scorecard put together by the U.S. Department of Education that compares cost, graduation rates, retention rates, and salary after attending.  How does the work of student affairs fit into the metrics of what your board of trustees or state legislature is talking about?  And can you tell that story using data?   All of higher education must hear the call for accountability and be prepared to respond.