Salaries for heads of some public colleges now more than $1 million

A annual survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education has found that, as costs of public colleges continue to rise, so, too, do the salaries of their presidents and chancellors.

An increasing number of public college presidents earned at least $1 million in 2015, as the cost of student tuition and fees continues to climb.

Five presidents were paid packages of more than $1 million in the 2015 fiscal year, with Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston system and president of the University of Houston campus, topping the list, according to an annual survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Dr. Khator earned $1.3 million for being chancellor and president. Two presidents earned $1 million in the previous year, and three in 2013.

As colleges face pressure to move up in the rankings while also reining in costs, governing boards that oversee colleges say competitive pay packages are necessary to recruit and retain a talented president, or, as some say, a talented "chief executive." But critics point to colleges' increasing operating expenses and, subsequently, tuition.  

"Schools are resisting changes, but they're going ahead and continuing to make these large payments to university presidents, and I think it's the height of irresponsibility," Richard Vedder, an economist and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity at Ohio University, told the Associated Press.

The Chronicle's survey analyzed the total compensation and base pay of 250 public universities for fiscal year 2015. The median total pay for public university presidents was $431,000, an increase of 4.3 percent over the year before.

The total compensation Khator received was followed by that of Michael Gottfredson, the former president of the University of Oregon, Michael Young, the president of Texas A&M University's flagship campus, William McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas system, and Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University.

The largest base salaries in 2015 – $800,000 each – were paid to Michael Drake of Ohio State University and Eric Barron of Pennsylvania State University. Next year, Mr. McRaven and Mr. Young are scheduled to exceed $1 million in base salary, which would be the highest since The Chronicle started collecting data in 2009, according to the Associated Press.

Typically, public university presidents are paid less than their peers at private colleges. According to The Chronicle's most recent study of private schools, 32 colleges paid their presidents at least $1 million in 2013, with Columbia University paying the most at $4.6 million. The average president of a private college earned an annual salary of $436,429 in 2013, up 5.6 percent from the year before.

These numbers stand in contrast to increasing tuition and fees students must pay, as well as the popularity of adjunct professors who are nontenured and part-time, as the Christian Science Monitor’s Story Hinckley reported in December. Since 2010, the average cost of tuition and fees for all colleges and universities increased 10 percent, from $17,710 in the 2010-11 school year to $19,548 in 2015-16, according to the College Board, which administers the SAT. The average cost of tuition and fees for private colleges and universities was $43,921 in 2015-16, while the average costs for a public college was $9,410.

This is in addition to the 73 percent on average increase in tuition at public four-year colleges between 1999 and 2009. During that time, tuition at private nonprofit colleges jumped 34 percent. In the same period, median family income fell by about 7 percent, as Amanda Paulson reported for the Monitor in 2012.

Among the contributing factors for these increases, writes Ms. Paulson, "are state budget cuts, which prompted many public colleges to raise tuition and fees; a gradual shift of responsibility for payment from government to students and their families; and a 'seller's market' in which colleges can raise tuition without repercussions."

But governing boards tend to stand by the pay they dish out to presidents.

"Many times when I talk to trustees, they refer to university presidents as running companies – which they could also do if they chose to enter the private sector – so to keep a president at the university they will pay what it takes," Sandhya Kambhampati, the lead author of the Chronicle survey about private colleges, told The Christian Science Monitor in December. "They will pay the market value."

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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