Poor-mouthing your way to obesity

Patrick Gibbons

"We've cut to the bone." That is what policymakers and government insiders repeatedly tell us about state and local budgets. Since we've cut to the bone, they argue, the only thing we can do is raise taxes — again.

Pretending there is nowhere left to cut, they threaten to reduce services. But factually, this is nonsense. For example, in 2009 the Washoe County School District employed one worker for every 7.2 students, while the Clark County School District employed one worker for every eight students.

They haven't cut to the bone. They've simply threatened students — to protect jobs for adults.

Most Nevadans understand that K-12 education in Nevada puts adults ahead of students, but few seem to understand that higher education is just as bad, if not worse.

A new Goldwater Institute report, by University of Arkansas professor Dr. Jay P. Greene and research fellows Brian Kisida and Jonathan Mills, suggests the nation's leading institutions of higher education are bloated with administrators and other employees. Nevada's universities are no exception.

Titled "Administrative Bloat in Higher Education," the report finds that, "unlike almost every other industry, higher education has not experienced economies of scale" — that is: moved to educating more students at less cost. 

"Instead," write Greene and his colleagues, "it actually takes more university employees and more money to educate each student."

Examining the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and University of Nevada, Reno data reported to the U.S. Department of Education, the researchers find a disturbing trend — both universities have become more expensive and less efficient over time. From 1993 to 2007, inflation-adjusted in-state tuition grew by 56 percent at UNLV and 90 percent at UNR.

Total spending grew by 140 percent at UNLV and by 69 percent at UNR. Adjusting for student population growth, UNLV had 59 percent more dollars per pupil in 2007 than in 1993, while UNR's budget grew 21 percent per pupil.

Despite more resources, the universities became less productive, hiring more employees to provide an education for each student enrolled. At UNR the number of administrators per 100 students grew by 18 percent between 1993 and 2007 — twice as much as the number of instructors. At UNLV the number of administrators per 100 students grew by a staggering 90 percent, even though instructor staff was cut by 6.6 percent.

That the number of administrators is growing faster than the student body says much about the real priorities within Nevada public higher education. And it shines new light on the inability of both UNLV and UNR to graduate 50 percent of their students within six years. Congressional Democrats are currently harassing private, for-profit universities over cost and graduation rates, but both Nevada schools are costing even more and graduating even fewer students in a timely fashion.

Higher education in the Silver State has a serious bloat problem. UNLV employs more administrators (3.8) per 100 students than classroom instructors (3.4), and has experienced some of the highest administrative growth in the nation. It employs one worker for every 8.6 students.

UNR, however, is the bloat champion — employing one person for every 5.9 students. UNR is so swollen with employees, it actually makes the Clark and Washoe county school districts look like models of efficiency.

Continual increases in taxpayer subsidies and student tuition ensure that "administrators are paid dividends in the form of higher compensation and more fellow administrators who can reduce their own workload or expand their empires," write Greene and his colleagues.  

Additionally, the growing role of government in higher education means the universities become more and more attuned to the needs of politicians, rather than those of their students.

"To please political constituencies," notes Greene, "universities need more diversity administrators, sustainability administrators, or anyone who might improve the prospects for subsidies from politicians."

The reality is indisputable: Education in Nevada is about employing adults, not educating students. Nevada lawmakers need to make the adult decision and cut the budgets of our bloated, ineffective and wasteful education systems — compelling education leaders to innovate and improve quality and productivity at their institutions.

Without real, meaningful budget reductions, education in Nevada will merely continue in its old ruts — swindling taxpayers and students for more subsidies, putting adults ahead of students and increasingly delivering inferior service to the students of the Silver State.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more information visit http://npri.org/.