Administrator Pay Flat in Pandemic

Report shows lowest salary increase for administrators since 2010. But the proportion of women and minority administrators did not decrease -- a welcome surprise after fears they would be the first to be let go during the pandemic.

April 26, 2021
Administrators received a median 0.36 percent increase in pay this past year.
(Vadzim Kushniarou/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

In a year punctuated by layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts at many colleges and universities, administrator pay remained nearly flat across higher education, according to a new report from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

The median salary increase for administrators between 2019-20 and 2020-21 was 0.36 percent, the report states. The minor pay bump is the lowest increase for administrators since 2010 -- during the Great Recession. This year’s dip also pulls down the three-year average increase for administrators to 1.92 percent.

CUPA-HR’s Administrators in Higher Education Annual Report, released today, draws from a survey of more than 1,000 higher education institutions, which reported information about 47,985 administrators. Administrators include top executive officers; senior institutional and chief functional officers; institutional administrators; heads of divisions, departments and centers; academic deans; and academic associate or assistant deans. Other employees who work in administration are not included.

This year’s median pay increase fell short of the previous two years. In 2019, administrators received a median pay bump of 2.73 percent, and in 2020 they received a median increase of 2.67 percent. 

By comparison, faculty members saw an average 1 percent increase in compensation, not adjusting for inflation -- the smallest year-over-year increase in faculty salaries since 1972, according to a survey from the American Association of University Professors. The AAUP survey used mean, a slightly different measure of the average than the CUPA-HR report's median.

Heads of divisions received the largest salary increase, according to the CUPA-HR report -- a 0.4 percent bump. Typically, heads of divisions are among the lowest-paid administrators.

The overall number of administrators did not decrease during the pandemic. During the 2020-21 academic year, administrator ranks increased by 0.2 percent. Most of this growth was concentrated at master’s and doctoral institutions, while baccalaureate and associate degree-granting institutions decreased their administrator workforce, the report shows.

Faculty ranks saw similar variation by institution type. The number of faculty members at doctoral institutions increased in the past year by 0.8 percent. Meanwhile, the number of faculty members at master’s, baccalaureate and associate degree-granting institutions decreased, according to the AAUP survey.

Diversity among administrators did not improve during the 2020-21 academic year. Women are still underrepresented in high-paying administrative positions and are paid less than their male counterparts at all administrative levels, CUPA-HR found. Black, Hispanic or Latinx, and Asian men make up only 7 percent of administrators, while Black, Hispanic or Latinx, and Asian women account for 9 percent of administrators.

While the past year wasn’t a banner year for diversity, the number of women and Black, Hispanic or Latinx, and Asian administrators didn’t change from the year prior.

That fact was pleasantly surprising, said Jackie Bichsel, director of research at CUPA-HR and co-author of the report. Bichsel predicted at the beginning of the pandemic that women and minority employees would be less likely to get a raise, a new job or a promotion than their white and male counterparts.

But it’s too soon to tell whether that prediction came true for staff members, which includes more women and minority employees.

The report does not include salary information for administrators who were laid off. CUPA-HR collected some information about layoffs but did not include it in this report. CUPA-HR collected salary information for employees who were furloughed but asked institutions to report the salaries employees would have earned had they been working in November, when the survey began.

It’s unlikely that administrator compensation numbers will return to the pre-pandemic trend next year, Bichsel said.

“These are immediate changes in the wake of severe budget cuts instituted in the wake of the pandemic,” Bichsel said in an email. “We know from the last recession that budget recovery is slow or even nonexistent for some institutions. It will be important to track these trends in the coming years as higher education institutions are again asked to do more with less.”

Part of the reason for the near-zero increase to administrator pay could be the pay freezes and cuts that many higher education leaders took while their institutions implemented budget reductions, Bichsel said.

“We were hearing many stories of administrators -- many of whom are the highest-paid employees in higher ed -- taking pay cuts and/or forgoing raises to help absorb the impact of the budget cuts that occurred,” Bichsel said. “I think these data support these anecdotes and show that, overall, administrators were willing to set the example and take a financial hit for the cause.”

College presidents may have also taken compensation cuts in other ways. In 2020-21, fewer presidents received a car, club membership or housing subsidy, the CUPA-HR survey shows.

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Emma Whitford

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