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Six-figure salaries in higher ed: How much is enough?

Does a university need half a billion dollars for salaries?

If you want to make a good bit of money in Virginia, you could evidently do worse than go into higher education. In that state, four-fifths of the highest-paid public employees are in higher ed. True, those are nearly all administrators, deans, and presidents—the administrative side of higher ed often makes more money than the actual educational one—but there’s money to be made in teaching, as well: There are plenty of professors at Virginia Commonwealth University that make significant six-figure salaries. Salaries there account for nearly half a billion dollars in expenditures per year. At the University of Virginia the numbers are even higher: That school spends about three-quarters of a billion on paychecks every year, with twelve individuals making over half a million per year.

Well, so what? Maybe they’ve earned it all. And yet the numbers here feel at least a little unseemly—at least right now, when we’re currently undergoing a crisis of affordability regarding higher education. Students feel compelled to attend college, yet it is in most cases prohibitively expensive to do so; as a result, students take out substantial loans to pay for degrees that are increasingly undervalued in the marketplace. Stagnant, crushing debt is often the result; the problem is so significant that progressives running for president are fighting like crazy for the chance to erase that debt.

Whether or not you think this is necessary, it is striking that thousands and thousands of instructors are pulling down upper-middle-class salaries while their students are taking out $40,000 in loans. This is doubly strange when you consider the high-minded zeitgeist surrounding education these days. We’re told that there are few more noble pursuits than teaching and educating young minds; that may be true, but it is somewhat hard to square those claims of magnanimity with a $325,000 salary at a public university. Maybe those professors have earned it—maybe. But that is likely small comfort to the students who will be paying back their own loans for 20 years.

MORE: In Virginia, 80 percent of highest-paid public employees are in higher ed

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