As student loans grow, so does university leadership pay

May 16, 2012, 7:42 PM UTC

Congratulations! You’re in debt.

FORTUNE – For all the flak Wall Street gets over excessive pay, it’s only fair to take a closer look at compensation at America’s universities.

The topic deserves attention, as the rise in student debt forces colleges to confront soaring costs. This week, The New York Times began its series on the implications of graduates struggling to pay off student loans. The reporters crunched some disturbing numbers: More than 66% of students who earn a bachelor’s degree now borrow to pay for higher education, compared with 45% in 1993.

The borrowing binge has gone on for years. And although studies show college does pay off over the long haul, student loans have been particularly troublesome for recent graduates as they deal with a weak job market. In 2011, the average debt was $23,300, with 10% owing more than $54,000 and 3% more than $100,000.

College costs are rising while education funding from the government shrinks. From 2001 to 2011, tuition and fees at state schools soared 72%, compared with only 29% at nonprofit private institutions. During the same period, state and local funding per student fell by 24% nationwide.

There’s plenty of dispute about why college costs so much today. As The Times notes, it could be that colleges got caught up in big spending when economic times were good to attract the best and the brightest students and faculty. Maybe education is just inherently pricey as universities try to keep up with higher health care costs and new technologies.

But one important factor is being overlooked: Pay packages at the top. While students languish in debt, many university presidents enjoy lofty paychecks. Since 1991, salaries of university presidents at at public and private universities have roughly doubled, says Andrew Hacker, co-author of Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – and What We can Do About It.

At public universities, the median compensation for presidents was $375,442 in 2009-2010, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s latest figures. The top 10 highest paid boasted compensation ranging from $1.8 million to $728,350, with Ohio State University president E. Gordon Gee at the top, followed by former University of Washington president Mark Emmert  with $904,004 (he’s now president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association), Francisco Cigarroa of the University of Texas System with $813,892 and John Hitt of the University of Central Florida with $800,703. That’s way more than what many of today’s most high-profile public servants earn.

To be sure, finding talent isn’t easy. At least in corporate America, the general philosophy is that the big bucks pull in good people. And running a major university is complex stuff, so presidents should be fairly compensated.

But running an entire state and country is tough, too. What’s most striking about the nation’s highest paid university presidents is that they boast compensation packages exceeding even President Obama’s 2010 annual salary of $395,188. Of course, that might not be a fair comparison, given that being president of the United States will likely lead to a lifetime of lucrative speaking gigs and book deals. But even many state governors don’t earn as much as some university presidents, including California Governor Jerry Brown, who currently earns an annual salary of $212,179.

It’s that imbalance that California state Sen. Leland Yee’s office often highlights. Last year, the San Francisco Democrat introduced legislation that would prohibit executive pay increases at the University of California and California State University in years when economic times are tough and the state is unable to raise funding for the schools. Currently, University of California President Mark Yudof earns a salary of $591,000 – more than twice the governor’s pay. California State’s Chancellor Charlie Reed trails slightly behind but still trumps the governor with a salary of $421,500,179.

In April, Yee’s bill was killed but the issue of excessive pay remains. Last week, California State approved a policy whereby pay raises for chancellors would come only from funds raised privately by the university and not from taxpayer dollars. Adam Keigwin, Yee’s chief of staff, says that’s not good enough, since money from the school’s foundation should go toward scholarships and help lower tuition and fees for students.

Keigwin’s remark touches a broader question: Have America’s university’s lost focus on its students?

True, when it comes to salaries of university presidents, they generally make up a relatively small portion of schools’ overall budgets. Ohio State University’s Gee, the nation’s highest-paid public university president, has a total pay package worth about $2 million – indeed, tiny compared with the university’s $4.8 billion budget for 2010-2011.

But that’s not the point. What it comes down to is leadership – starting at the top.

As The Times notes, Gee is a “spendthrift” and has taken steps to bring down the university’s costs. But it seems as though he wants it both ways, says Claudia Dreifus, who co-author of Higher Education? with Hacker.

“If President Gee would like to offer some genuine leadership to the public university funding crisis, he could begin by cutting his salary in half,” Dreifus says.