In the long-running debate over how many administrators are too many, two economic researchers believe they have identified an ideal ratio. For colleges to operate most effectively, they say, each institution should employ three tenured or tenure-track faculty for every one full-time administrator.
What the ratio is now is difficult to say, though most colleges probably would have to hire significantly more faculty or pare back on administrators if they wanted to meet a three-to-one goal. The numbers are fuzzy and inconsistent because universities report their own data. Different institutions categorize jobs differently, and the ways they choose to count positions that blend teaching and administrative duties further complicate the data. When researchers talk about "administrators," they can never be sure exactly which employees they are including. Sometimes colleges count librarians, for example, as administrators, and sometimes they do not.
In their recent study, Robert E. Martin, a professor emeritus of economics at Centre College, and R. Carter Hill, a professor of economics at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, attempted to quantify the factors that drive costs at 137 public research institutions. They describe their findings in a working paper titled "Measuring Baumol and Bowen Effects in Public Research Universities," released in October.
In their analysis of federal data from 1987 to 2008, the researchers calculated that the nationwide ratio was tilted toward administrators, with two full-time administrators for every one tenured or tenure-track faculty member. But their analysis showed, they said, that a ratio of three faculty to one administrator would be the most cost-effective balance for universities.
While examining the cost effects on institutions of external forces, like faculty and administrative salary trends, and internal decisions, like where to spend available money, the researchers found that college officials' own decisions accounted for a $2 increase in cost for every $1 increase caused by external factors.
The researchers found that skewing the three-to-one ratio with too many administrators or too many faculty members would cause costs to climb.
"The balance between people who are actually in the trenches and those who are overseeing that work has gotten grossly out of line," Mr. Martin said. "That imbalance is one of the primary reasons for why costs grew so out of control over the last three decades."

A Shift Toward Administrators

The study's findings demonstrate the importance of shared governance in universities' budget decisions, Mr. Martin said. Those who hold the purse strings have a natural incentive to hire more employees like themselves, Mr. Martin said. Sharing decisions about hiring and other spending across different types of people, including faculty, administrators, and governing-board members, he said, acts as a natural check and balance, ensuring that no individual side's interests rise to the top. (See a recent commentary by Mr. Martin on this topic.)
But the study highlights a staffing trend, seen over two decades, of colleges' hiring more administrators than faculty. Universities reduced costs by hiring part-time instructors instead of tenure-track faculty, while hiring relatively more full-time administrators, the study shows. In 1987, the ratio of tenure-track faculty to full-time administrators at public research universities was 0.96, a balance of about one-to-one, with a slight tilt toward administrators. By 2008, however, the ratio of faculty to administrators had fallen to 0.56, reflecting a strong shift toward administrators.
Over that same time, the number of tenure-track faculty per 100 students at public research universities grew by 3 percent, while the number of part-time faculty per 100 students grew by 60 percent. Meanwhile, executive and managerial staff at those institutions increased by 9 percent per 100 students and noninstructional professional staff grew by 57 percent per 100 students.

'Back to Basics'

Some advocates of increasing the proportion of faculty at universities say they support the researchers' goal of setting a three-to-one ratio of faculty to administrators.
Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University and author of The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011), has argued that universities would be better off with fewer administrators, people he calls "deanlets."
The three-to-one ratio "makes a lot of sense," Mr. Ginsberg said, because it would shift the staff balance in universities. "If an administrator disappeared, no one would notice for a year or two," he said. "They would assume they were all on retreat, whereas a missing professor is noticed right away."
Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and a professor of economics at Ohio University, said shifting the balance back toward faculty is key to keeping universities' missions focused on teaching, as opposed to becoming too focused on other activities, like business development or sustainability efforts.
"We need to get back to basics," said Mr. Vedder. The basics are "teaching and research," he said, "and we need to incentivize leaders of the universities to get rid of anything that's outside of that."
While the data available for the study go only through 2008, Mr. Vedder said he hadn't seen any evidence that patterns have changed much since then. In the wake of the recession, universities dealing with cuts in state aid have not made significant reductions in noninstructional staff, he said.

Long Traditions of Complaining

Some higher-education analysts, however, say no one faculty-to-administrator ratio should be applied across all colleges.
Paul E. Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Officers, sees little merit in any universal ratio because there are so many factors involved in deciding how to staff a university.
"There's a long tradition of faculty members' complaining about administrators and administrators' complaining about faculty members," he said. "The truth is, the right ratio depends a lot on the nature of the institution, what the work is, what work needs to be done."
The ratio, for instance, would tilt differently at a research-driven university that requires more staff to organize research logistics than a teaching-oriented college with a smaller budget.
Others emphasize that some administrators do have their place. As states have reduced money for higher education in recent years, administrators have played a vital role in soliciting money from private donors and other sources, said Gretchen M. Bataille, a former president of the University of North Texas who is now senior vice president for leadership and lifelong learning at the American Council on Education.
"You're looking to supplant funds that have been lost," she said. "If state funding has gone down, you have to figure out how to replace the state funding."
Sometimes that means finding new sources of money. Sometimes it means increasing tuition—something most people agree that no one wants to do if it can be avoided.
Regardless of what exact ratio might make sense, some scholars see value in trying to do a better job of quantifying colleges' costs and in taking a deeper look at higher education's structure.
As Jay P. Greene, head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, put it, "We study a lot of things rigorously, but we don't often study ourselves rigorously because maybe we'd rather not look."