Dive Brief:

  • Nineteen public college leaders made more than $1 million in 2019, two more than the year before, according to data from The Chronicle of Higher Education examining the compensation packages of 275 chief executives. 
  • Georgia State University President Mark Becker topped the list at $2.8 million, most of which came from deferred compensation. The 20 highest-paid executives earned 1.6% less on average in 2019 than in 2018. 
  • The data comes as the pandemic straps higher education budgets and as schools and systems begin to cut positions and pay.

Dive Insight:

The Chronicle’s broad look at public college executives’ income found continued use of deferred compensation and other perks, such as housing, to lure candidates and encourage longer tenures. College presidents are spending less time in the role, a 2017 report from the American Council on Education notes, as challenges facing campuses add new dimensions to the position.

A separate study of 115 contracts of public university presidents found that half included deferred compensation or a retirement benefit, the researchers explained in a 2017 essay. That count doesn’t include contracts that cite state policy documents calling for college leaders to get those perks. 

But deferred compensation and other payouts have drawn criticism, particularly as weakened state funding stresses public colleges’ budgets and institutions rely more on adjunct faculty.

According to The Chronicle’s analysis, a “typical” public college leader made 4.4 times what their campus’s average full professor earned in 2019. Four presidents raked in more than seven times as much.

As campuses cut positions and freeze salaries in response to the pandemic’s economic impact, executive pay will not likely be immune. In April, the University of Oregon’s president said he would take a 12% pay cut lasting at least six months, according to a local media report. Leaders at the University of California System have agreed to a 10% pay cut for the new fiscal year. 

The Chronicle’s data follows its look earlier this year at private college leaders’ pay in 2017. That year, 64 private college execs made more than $1 million and three topped $5 million. Deferred compensation and other financial perks also factored heavily into their packages. 

But such incentives can draw scrutiny. Max Nikias, who stepped down from his role as president of the private University of Southern California in August 2018 amid a sex abuse scandal, was given a hefty $7.7 million compensation package. Journalists who reviewed the payout say the source of much of the money is unclear.

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