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Should College Presidents Get Higher Salaries?

Mar 16, 2012 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Education.org Columnist | 0 Comments

According to the New York Times*, college presidents’ compensation has grown faster than professor salaries—with some compensation rising to more than $1 million per year. With tuition costs rising, it’s understandable if students, families, and even professors themselves question why administrators should receive such high salaries.

The question is: do college presidents deserve to earn that much, and are the high salaries worth it? Here’s a look at some reasons why college presidents frequently pull down such large paychecks—even in a time of recession.

Because public university presidents shouldn’t receive less than their private-university cousins

Some resent the idea of college presidents at public schools making large salaries—after all, those salaries are funded by taxpayers, and it looks bad for the president to appear to be profiting excessively from government largess. However, an argument can be made that presidents at high-paying public universities shouldn’t have lower salaries than the presidents of private schools—even if the private schools are more wealthy,
as is often the case. Indeed, public universities can be larger
and more complex to run—and some believe their presidents
deserve to earn more than those leading private schools.

Man Holding Money

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of why college presidents earn what they do. And it’s worth noting that while some outliers earn over $1 million per year, this isn’t the case for all.

Because other options pay a lot

To land a top administrative leader, colleges must compete on a pay scale with private-industry options that are sometimes quite lucrative. A top-level Chief Operations Officer or Chief Financial Officer at a college—and a president may wear both of these hats, in addition to others—could also work for a business. Colleges need to attract the right leadership talent to succeed, just as any organization does—and to do it, they need to offer competitive pay packages.

Because the job is hard

There’s no question that professors and other administrators work hard. But some administrators would point out that the president is responsible for everything that goes on at campus as well as with marketing, donor relations, and more. The presidency of a college is a 24/7 job. In addition, while a high-level professorship might offer tenure, presidents often don’t get that kind of job security—and may serve at the will of the board of directors. The job can be highly stressful, difficult, and demanding—and can also have high turnover at some colleges. It can also come with a high media profile, which can put added demands on the president’s private life.

Because market pressures don’t hold salaries down

There’s also the idea that, with federal loan money available, there’s little financial pressure to keep college presidents’ salaries down—and that some presidents may take advantage of that. Students have little ability to choose colleges based on tuition price, and as a result, one theory states that colleges don’t have the same limitations on what they charge as most companies face. It’s possible this could affect some of the outliers in salary.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of why college presidents earn what they do. And it’s worth noting that while some outliers earn over $1 million per year, this isn’t the case for all. The job is demanding and difficult, and it’s also crucial to the success of the school—as the president’s leadership has an impact on all aspects of operations. Even so, some college presidents earn significantly more than their professors and other administrators do, and it’s not unreasonable for others to call those salaries into question—especially in a time when student loan burdens are becoming unbearable. 

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