College tuition is at record high. College presidents’ pay is, too

Pay day—for some.
Pay day—for some.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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College tuition is sky high. Not entirely coincidentally, so are college presidents’ salaries.

The Chronicle of Higher Education today released an annual update to its executive compensation report, adding data on private colleges from 2015, the most recent year for which IRS data on such figures is available. It shows that the average pay for private-college presidents in the US in 2015 was $569,932—up 9% from 2014—while 58 private-college presidents took home more than $1 million. Highest-earning of the bunch was Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, who made just over $4 million in base salary and other pay combined.

“The number of presidents earning over $1 million is unusually high in 2015,” Chronicle database reporter Dan Bauman said in a press release, attributing the uptick in part to “a market where presidents are negotiating more deferred compensation and bonus packages before they take the job.”

Translation: College presidents are paid handsomely because they have the power to demand it. Higher education is in a period of upheaval—culturally, as well as financially—and leading a university is arguably a tougher job than it has been in decades. Presidents must balance the demands of alumni, parents, donors, faculty, and current students, the last of whom are getting more vocal with their interests every year; they are also grappling with how to bring their brick-and-mortar institutions into the technology-driven future.

But presidents’ ever-creeping salaries also go hand in hand with the runaway tuition problem that many colleges, particularly large ones in the US, are facing. Going to university is more crucial than ever for the current generation looking to enter the workforce—yet schools have to keep increasing their tuition rates in order to pay for features that keep them competitive, such as glittering campus amenities and top-notch professors (and high-quality presidents).

Until fundamental issues at the core of schools’ business strategies are worked out—how and where to cut costs, namely—we’ll just see higher figures on the balance sheet every year.