How Much Do College Presidents Earn?

A new report says their salaries have climbed 35 percent in the past five years.

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College presidents typically have blamed personnel costs for the dramatic increases in tuition in recent years. But a new report from the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that one group of personnel pushing up the costs is the presidents themselves. The report also surprisingly notes one group of personnel that is not generally driving up costs: professors.

In its (subscription required) annual survey of campus executives' pay, the Chronicle Monday reported that the median compensation of presidents at public universities was $427,400 last year, a gain of 35 percent over inflation in five years. Presidents at the big private universities collected slightly more than $527,000 in 2006 (the latest year for which private school salaries are available), up almost 19 percent more than inflation in five years. Presidents of smaller schools that don't have big research departments tended to make much less. The median presidential pay at schools that mostly offer just bachelor's and master's degrees was $226,000.

The highest-paid president on the Chronicle's list this year was David J. Sargent, who earned $2.8 million to lead Suffolk University in Boston in 2006 (the latest year for which data for that school is available). But much of that money was deferred compensation and a longevity bonus for Sargent, who has spent more than 50 years at Suffolk. The single highest-paid public university president currently serving is Ohio State University's E. Gordon Gee, who last year received a total of $1.35 million in salary and benefits such as a free house and car.

The highest-paid community college president on the Chronicle's list was Michael McCall of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, who earned $610,670 last year.

Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability, says her research indicates the increases in tuition are mostly being funneled to financial aid, research, and "student services," which includes counselors, advisers, and college administrators of all sorts. The costs of nonteaching personnel are driving up costs "faster than almost anything else," she says. Schools say nonteaching costs are rising rapidly because today's students need more counseling, tech support, and the like.

Whatever the reason for the increase in nonteaching costs, Wellman says the numbers seem to confirm: "You can't blame the faculty" for the majority of the increases. Overall instructional costs have risen only slightly faster than inflation at most campuses. While a few star professors are collecting big salaries, most colleges are saving money by filling the majority of classrooms with part-time and temporary instructors instead of traditional tenured professors. Private colleges sometimes pay their "adjunct" or "contingent" faculty less than 5 percent of the tuition they collect for each course.