The $700,000 University Gig

For out-of-work former Wall Street executives looking to rake in seven figure salaries or six figure bonuses, a trip to that leafy college campus just down the way might prove well worth it.

Despite’s the nation’s current economic woes, presidents, chancellors, and other administrators at public higher education institutions are still raking in big bucks.  According to a recent investigation by, a political news site, University of Colorado-Denver Chancellor Roy Wilson will make up to $718,115 in 2009.  

While Wilson’s base salary is a plush $468,115, he can also benefit from annual incentive payments of up to $175,000 and additional supplemental pay of $75,000 to help cover his housing, life insurance, and travel expenses.  Wilson is just one of more than 2,000 CU employees making more than $100,000 annually and one of 105 earning more than $300,000.  

Wilson’s defenders maintain that his compensation is competitive with others holding similar credentials, including a medical degree, and say that without such a high salary, CU would not be able to attract a top candidate to run the campus, which includes the university’s top-rated medical school.  

University spokesman Ken McConnellogue points to a recent survey on medical school chancellor salaries showing that the mean salary is $727,441. “For us to cut a salary by 20 percent would limit the pool of people who we can attract to that job," he told Face The State.

But in an era when students, their families, and taxpayers are going into six-figure debt largely to fund these six-figure salaries, we should be thinking twice about huge salaries paid to state employees. Over the last decade, the American economy has been fueled by artificially easy access to credit, and higher education has been no exception.  Almost all students can tap into federally guaranteed Perkins and Stafford loans long before they ever need to turn to private banks for aid.  The consequences are now weighing heavily on both students and taxpayers.

College costs have risen by more than 50 percent for the average student since 1990. The average student graduates with nearly $22,000 in debt, and for parents participating in the federal PLUS loan program, another $16,000 is tacked on. According to a 2007 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the cost of obtaining a college degree is more expensive in the U.S. than in any other country in the world, with the exception of Australia.

For students attending CU’s medical school, in-state tuition now runs $25,009 and out-of-state students pay $82,059.  That’s per year and before housing and living expenses are even added to the tab.  The average graduating medical school student is now more than $100,000 in debt.

The disconnect between university leaders and their students is appalling.  Despite the fact that Colorado faces a projected state budget shortfall of nearly $1 billion, forcing CU to cut $8 million this year and another $6 million next, Wilson and his fellow administrators have shown no willingness to cut back on administrative compensation.  And Colorado isn’t alone.

According to Business Week, the president of the University of Florida got a nearly $300,000 bonus in 2008, as did the head of Florida State.  Similar to Colorado, Florida’s college students are also being forced to foot the bill after Gov. Charlie Crist authorized double-digit tuition increases at all of the state’s public institutions.  

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey on executive compensation found that the average public university president can plan to bank more than $425,000 a year, with presidents at private universities raking in $100,000 more.  The figures don’t include retirement perks, expense accounts, fancy cars or houses.  After leaving his role as CU president years ago, E. Gordon Gee now serves as president of Ohio State, where he took home $1,346,225 last year.

In a time when Americans are cutting back in every way possible to make ends meet, America’s public colleges and universities should take the cue and start cutting back on over-compensation of college executives.  Anything less is a slap in the face to the nation’s debt-saddled students and the taxpayers who share the bill.