CCAP's latest report, Trends in the Higher Education Labor Force: Identifying Changes in Worker Composition and Productivity, was released this week. The report provides an objective view of aggregated labor force data, as reported by the Department of Education, over the past twenty years. The main findings are that:
(a) Colleges have responded to an increase in enrollment by increasing their labor force, largely with full-time support staff and management positions and part-time instructorsThe report recognizes that there have been regulatory changes during the past twenty years that require additional support staff, but questions whether such changes substantiate the level of growth that has actually occured. "Back Office" FTE staff has increased by 86.4 percent over the past twenty years, relative to an increase in FTE enrollment of 39.7 percent.
(b) The number of support and management positions has exploded
(c) The increase in staffing levels has been disproportionate to the change in enrollment and number of degrees awarded
(d) The work force at 2-year schools are more productive than their 4-year counterparts, and the for-profit sectors are more productive than the not-for-profit sectors
Critics will surely defend this increase with claims of a changing college missions that call for athletic dominance, environmental sustainability, diversity, and the like. Those are noble social goals, but the problem is that every college in the nation has been playing follow-the-leader, which has resulted in an explosion in labor costs, without consideration of the student's and public's ability to continue supporting these ambitions with tuition dollars and subsidies. This increase in the labor force to meet new (and discretionary) goals is at least partially responsible for the soaring tuition levels, which is leading to public discontent with the higher education establishment.
Perhaps colleges have been too ambitious in trying to keep up with their peers, contributing to speculative expansion, or what what my colleague, Andrew Gillen, has termed a tuition bubble. At some point, reality needs to set in that not every 4-year institution in the nation is going to be a premier research center, have a championship football team, or what have you. When this happens, many colleges can revert their missions back to providing students with the tools and knowledge that they will need to be successful in life, and reduce their staff to a more sustainable level. If this fails to happen, then I'm sure that proprietary colleges will gladly step up to the plate to provide affordable career training for students interested in gaining skills that will make them employable without mortgaging their future.