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President Obama at Notre Dame. Ngan/Getty Images. President Obama at Notre Dame. Ngan/Getty Images.  

University presidents rake in millions while students flounder

Amid soaring tuition costs and high youth unemployment, total compensation for the nation’s top college presidents increased again last year as yet another education executive crossed the line into millionaire territory, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual salary report.

There were four college presidents making more than a million dollars last year, including the presidents of Pennsylvania State University ($2.9 million), Auburn University ($2.5 million), Ohio State University ($1.8 million) and George Mason University ($1.8 million).

Similar raises occurred among the middle-range presidents, with the number of executives being paid between $600,000 and $700,000 more than doubling (from 13 to 28) last year.

The numbers reflect total compensation, not just base salaries. Jack Stripling, a reporter for the Chronicle, told The New York Times that deferred compensation packages are the increasingly popular payment method of universities. He also noted that the highest compensated executive, Graham Spanier of Pennsylvania State University, was forced to resign his position due to leadership failures relating to the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal, which happened during Spanier’s tenure.

“The fact that Graham Spanier turns out to be the highest paid president in the country says something about the nature of compensation packages for people who leave under a cloud,” said Stripling in a statement. “Severance agreements are often very lucrative.”

Deferred compensation packages can also help university presidents disguise their earnings at a time when rapidly rising tuition costs and student loan debt are causing many experts to question the real value of a college degree.

For instance, Jo Ann Gora, president of Ball State University, turned down a pay raise, but later accepted a deferred compensation package for the same amount, according to the Chronicle’s report. The new deal brought her total compensation to $984,647.

Such high compensation is bound to rankle debt-ridden college graduates, who are entering the job market at a time when the U.S.’s youth unemployment rate is among the highest in the developed world. And millions of employed graduates are working at jobs for which they are over qualified, or did not need degrees.

The high cost of attending college has led students to accumulate over a trillion dollars in loan debts. Just last week, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed a bill that would increase public subsidization of higher education by encouraging students to take out even more loans at discounted rates.

Warren herself was paid over $700,000 during a two-year period as a professor at Harvard University. Her opponent in the 2012 election, then-Sen. Scott Brown pointed out that her base salary alone would pay for a year of tuition for nine full-time students.

As students, graduates, and taxpayers struggle to pay off the burden of American higher education, the upward trajectory of college presidents’ compensation will likely fuel similar criticisms.

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