Goldwater Institute study falls short in explaining ‘bloat’

The Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based politically motivated think tank, has issued a report critical of the nation’s universities, including Arizona’s public institutions, for what it claims is “administrative bloat.”

The report, which was not shared with universities or the Arizona Board of Regents before being released to the media, says the number of administrators at Arizona’s institutions increased dramatically from 1993 to 2007 compared to instruction, classroom and service.

Called “Administrative Bloat at American Universities: The Real Reason for High Costs in Higher Education,” the report was developed by Jay P. Greene, a Goldwater fellow and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, using information collected from a federal database.

Unfortunately, the author casts a wide net to define administrators and include categories such as librarians, academic advisers and financial aid counselors.

More important, perhaps, the author failed to acknowledge the dramatic differences in today’s universities compared to 1993. From the pre-Internet days 17 years ago to today’s high-tech programming, distance education, and financial and academic advising, a single professor standing in front of a classroom of young students is not an accurate representation of a successful institution of higher education.

Student services, technology services for every computer on campus, accountability to taxpayers, increased public safety and the multitude of other university operations and demands come with a price tag. It takes people and investment to achieve the goals and standards set by state and federal governments.

Yet using Greene’s own data, Northern Arizona University averages 4.6 administrators per 100 students—well below the national average of 7.9.

A better question for Greene to explore may have been “are we getting the bang for our buck,” and, clearly, Arizonans can be assured that is the case:

  • NAU’s tuition ranks below average of its peers. NAU even has instituted a guaranteed tuition to give predictability to students and their parents.
  • NAU’s student population has grown from 18,491 in 1993 to 23,600 last fall, an increase of 28 percent, with another significant increase expected this fall.
  • NAU is a residential institution with about 7,800 individuals living on the Flagstaff campus. This residential component requires an enterprise of housing, dining and student services experts.
  • NAU continues to extend its distance learning programs, which requires individuals on the ground in communities throughout the state. Since 1993 this portion of the university’s programs has grown from 3,272 students to 7,568, an increase of 131 percent.
  • NAU’s research expenditures have increased from $6.3 million in 1993 to $21.5 million today. This requires not only quality researchers, but support services to maintain the funds and comply with necessary reporting requirements.

Not surprisingly, the Goldwater Institute’s report offers no alternatives to funding the needs of today’s university students, only suggesting that university funding be cut. It should be noted that NAU already has seen its budget cut by more than $30 million with no state assistance for its ever-growing student population. Federal stimulus dollars have helped fill the gap, but will be unavailable in FY2012.

The Goldwater Institute is a special interest similar to those they are quick to criticize, only its interest is in trying to validate a preconceived notion that universities have “bloat” and that the employees they point to do not serve students. That is patently false.

Northern Arizona University continually expands effective and affordable ways for students to earn bachelor’s degrees through partnerships with community colleges, branch campuses and increased scrutiny of programs on the Flagstaff campus.

Despite the current state of the economy, Northern Arizona University remains an efficient path to a quality higher education.