The club of private college and university presidents earning seven figures is getting less exclusive.
Thirty presidents received more than $1 million in pay and benefits in 2008, according to an analysis of federal tax forms by The Chronicle of Higher Education. More than 1 in 5 chief executives at the 448 institutions surveyed topped $600,000.
Most of the pay packages were negotiated before the full force of the recession. But even if the numbers dip slightly in next year's survey, executive pay is expected to keep climbing over the long term as colleges compete for top talent. And schools are rewarding executives while raising tuition, exposing themselves to criticism.
At large research universities, the median pay was $760,774; it was $387,923 at liberal arts colleges and $352,257 at undergraduate and graduate colleges and universities.
The highest paid executive in the Chronicle survey was Bernard Lander, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and sociologist who founded Touro College in New York in 1970. He died in February at 94.
Lander received a compensation package of nearly $4.8 million. In a statement, the college said $4.2 million of that was retroactive pay and benefits awarded after an outside consultant determined Lander had been "severely underpaid."
Several deals reported the Chronicle survey, which covers the most recent available data, included deferred compensation or other unusual circumstances. Comparisons to past years aren't possible because of changes in how data is reported to the Internal Revenue Service. Colleges were asked to report salaries by calendar year instead of fiscal year as in the past, so most dollar amounts overlap with what was reported the previous year.
Another change: Perks including first-class air travel, country club dues and housing are now included in reported pay.
In 2007-2008, 23 presidents received more than $1 million. As recently as 2004, no college president had broken the seven-figure threshold.
While some presidents on the latest list lead ultra-selective schools such as Columbia, Yale and Penn, executives from schools such as the University of Tulsa and Chapman University in Orange, Calif., are on it, too.
Not all the most elite schools are represented, either. The presidents of Harvard, Princeton and Johns Hopkins all were paid in the $800,000s.
"Value is in the eyes of the beholder," said Jeffrey Selingo, editor of the Chronicle. "Some boards think these presidents, even at small institutions, are worth it. On the flip side, the prestige of serving at other institutions is enough of a paycheck for some."
Still, numbers in the tax forms don't always tell the whole story.
Chapman University President James Doti's $1.25 million compensation includes two "golden handcuff" deferred compensation deals worth almost $665,000, spokeswoman Mary Platt said. She said the board did not want to lose Doti, who since taking the job in 1991 has raised the school's profile and overseen expansive building projects.
He and other college presidents have donated a portion of the earnings back to the college. Doti gave a $1 million gift for an endowed chair in economics.
David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said in a statement that salaries reflect supply and demand, and that presidents' jobs have become more demanding. Presidential salaries make up a very small percentage of campus budgets and have virtually no impact on tuition increases, Warren said.
Still, public confidence in higher education erodes when tuition and presidential pay are both rising, said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
"People see higher education as another institution that takes care of the people at the top first," he said.
According to the College Board, average tuition and fees at private colleges and universities have risen almost 35 percent in the past decade, to $27,290. Many students, though, pay much less because of grants and tax benefits. The average net price at private schools was $11,320 this fall, less than what students paid on average a decade ago.
Public college presidents generally earn less than their private counterparts. Only one public university president topped $1 million in 2008-09 — Ohio State University president Gordon Gee brought in $1.5 million.
Then there are for-profit colleges, which are under fire for their heavy reliance on federal student aid money and high student loan default rates. Strayer Education Inc. paid chairman and CEO Robert Silberman $41.9 million last year, according to a Bloomberg report last week.