As student debt rises, perks and high pay for top college officials

MoneyWatch editors Jill Schlesinger and Jack Otter discuss how to cut high college costs, offer advice on student loans and more. They're joined by Kim Clark, senior writer for Money magazine. CBS

report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York late last month found that student debt in the United States, which is now approaching $1 trillion, "is the only kind of household debt that continued to rise through the Great Recession." According to The Institute for College Access and Success, students in the class of 2011 who borrowed for college graduated with an average of $26,600 in student loan debt.

Meanwhile, dozens of top officials at colleges and universities saw compensation packages in 2010 in excess of $1 million, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. At New York University, the New York Times reported on Monday, top executives have received massive compensation packages upon their departure, including $685,000 to former executive vice president Jacob J. Lew and $1.23 million to former medical center executive Harold S. Koplewicz. Two former presidents of the expensive private university continue to live in apartments owned by N.Y.U., the Times reported, and current president John Sexton will be paid $800,000 per year upon his departure. 

In response to that report, CBSNews.com requested the most recent 990 tax filings from four prominent universities in the region: Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University and Columbia University. All but Yale provided their tax forms, which suggests that N.Y.U.'s practices are not unique.

At Columbia, for example, president Lee C. Bollinger was paid $950,635 in 2010. In addition, he was granted $608,618 in "retirement and other deferred compensation." The tax return explains that the university paid Bollinger more than $583,000 in supplemental retirement income in 2010 "based on cumulative annual credits including amounts for achieving performance measures."

In addition, Columbia said, Bollinger is provided an apartment valued at $333,937 - a non-taxable benefit - and "a car and driver to be used by the president in connection with his duties." (Bollinger is not the university's highest-paid employee: Three employees were paid more than $2 million, including cardiologist Jeffrey Moses and dermatologist David Silvers.) A representative for Columbia declined to comment on Bollinger's pay package. 

At Princeton, where top salaries were generally lower than at Columbia, President Shirley Tilghman was paid a total of $902,205 in 2010. (She was also not the highest paid employee: A pair of investors for the university, Andrew Golden and Jonathan Erickson, both made more than $1.4 million.) One departing employee, former lead fundraiser Brian McDonald, was given a $400,000 severance package upon his departure. 

Harvard, which lists the 2012-2013 cost of attendance for undergraduates at $57,950 - $62,950, reported that former Business School Dean Jay Light received $1 million in retirement incentive plan payments on top of his $238,654 salary. Former business school professor Robert Merton was paid $734,000 in retirement incentive plan payments. Professor Marc Kirschner, the founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology, received $1,138,524 in supplemental retirement payments.

Harvard, like many top universities, acknowledged paying certain tax obligations for top officials. Harvard's president, Drew Faust, was paid a total of $875,331, which partially includes the value of the house she is provided in Cambridge.

According to the Chronicle for Higher Education's 2012 survey, the median pay for private college presidents in 2010 was $396,649, with 36 presidents making more than $1 million. On many campuses, there is a wide gap in compensation between top officials and professors; many adjunct professors complain of low pay and a lack of benefits. 

At so-called "for-profit colleges," which are not included in the Chronicle analysis, a Congressional report last year found that "lavish" executive compensation, is based "predominantly on the profitability of their companies rather than the success of their students." (The Associated Press reported that one such executive, Todd S. Nelson of Education Management Corp., made more than $13 million in 2011.) This compensation is subsidized by taxpayers, since much of the tuition paid to for-profit colleges comes from federal financial aid.   

Salaries for top officials at public and private colleges and universities have relatively little impact on overall budgets, but Kyle McCarthy, co-founder of the advocacy group Student Debt Crisis, said officials should offer to take smaller salaries in order to "lead by example" in the effort to control rising tuition costs.

"We're seeing tuition skyrocket and people being priced out of being able to go to college, and yet these presidents and executives are making huge amounts of money," he said. "It's just not fair."

Correction: This story has been changed to fix an incorrect gender reference to Harvard President Drew Faust.

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