Staffing Up, Productivity Down

Rate of growth in colleges' hiring of full-time support staff has significantly outpaced growth in full-time instructors, think tank report finds.
April 20, 2009

Colleges' enrollments have risen dramatically in the past 20 years, so it's not surprising -- and arguably is even appropriate -- that the size of their staffs has grown, too. But the rate of growth has come among support staff employees rather than instructors and has outstripped the enrollment growth, resulting in a decline in productivity over that time, a new report asserts.

The report by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, "Trends in the Higher Education Labor Force: Identifying Changes in Worker Composition and Productivity," analyzes federal employment data from postsecondary institutions showing that that higher education workforce grew by about half from 1987 to 2007, or a little over a million jobs. More than 60 percent of those jobs were in instructional staff, but the vast majority of those jobs were part time.

So in the center's analysis, the number of full-time equivalent instructional positions grew by about 53 percent, while the number of support staff jobs grew by 100 percent, fully doubling, over that time. The number of full-time equivalent management jobs grew by about half, while the number of clerical and maintenance positions actually shrunk over 20 years.

The number of full-time employees relative to the number of students increased slightly in all sectors except for four-year nonprofit colleges, but when the center looks specifically at "back office" (management and support) as opposed to "front line" (instructional) employees, the growth is much sharper -- increasing by at least 30 percent in every sector.

The center's report next analyzes the changes in the higher education work force using two measures of "productivity" -- one looking at the number of employees as a ratio of the number of full-time students, and the other examining the number of employees as a ratio of degrees awarded by their institutions. On the latter count, the study finds that "back office degree productivity" -- the number of degrees awarded by the number of managers and support staff -- fell "significantly" in all sectors between 1987 and 2007, while the "front line degree productivity" increased for most sectors from 1987 to 1997, but then dipped below the 1987 levels in all but the two-year public and two-year for-profit sectors.

The center's report acknowledges what critics are likely to cite as a bias in its report -- the fact that many support staff employees do play important roles in the educational experience for students, in many student service areas. But the report's overall finding, writes Daniel Bennett, its author and administrative director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, is that the way that the higher ed work force has grown has "increasingly resulted in unproductive use of labor resources."


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