The fast-growing group of millionaire private college and university presidents has hit a new record, and it’s likely that even more college leaders will make seven-figure salaries once the slumping economy rebounds.

A record 23 presidents received more than $1 million in total compensation in fiscal 2008, according to an analysis of the most recently available data published Nov. 2 by the Chronicle of Higher Education. A record one in four in the study of 419 colleges’ mandatory IRS filings made at least $500,000.

Topping the list is Shirley Ann Jackson at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., whose total compensation the Chronicle pegged at nearly $1.6 million. She was followed by David Sargent at Suffolk University in Boston, who made $1.5 million. However, one-third of his compensation had been reported as deferred compensation last year and counted as salary this year–an example of the difficulty of making straightforward compensation comparisons.

Overall, median compensation for the group rose 6.5 percent, to $359,000, and it rose 15.5 percent at major private research universities, to $628,000. The figures essentially cover the 2007-08 academic year.

Those averages have almost certainly flattened or perhaps fallen since then, with numerous presidents–including Jackson–taking voluntary pay cuts this year amid widespread budget-cutting at their institutions.

But experts say the upward trend will almost certainly resume eventually. It might frustrate parents who are paying higher tuition, but experts insist the salaries reflect supply and demand.

"The baby boomers are retiring," said Ray Cotton, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer and expert on presidential contracts and compensation. "Boards are in a scramble competing against each other for the remaining available talent."

But the 24-7 nature of the job and the stresses stemming from the recession have made it unappealing to prospective candidates.

"Some people just don’t want anything to do with the job, because it keeps them up at night," said Chronicle editor Jeffrey Selingo. "In order to attract and retain good talent, [colleges are] going to have to pay for it. They may take a little break now because of the economy, but these pieces are still in place."

Still, colleges will have to absorb the public-relations hit that comes with offering seven-figure compensation to an academic leader. The average price of tuition plus room and board at four-year private colleges surpassed $39,000 last year, according to the latest figures from the College Board.

The Chronicle noted that 58 institutions charged more than $50,000 this year, up from just five last year. A number of those schools pay their presidents more than $1 million, including New York University, Columbia, and Vanderbilt.

The Chronicle also identified three former presidents who received compensation of more than $1 million in 2007-08, topped by retired George Washington University president Stephen Trachtenberg, whose benefits package was valued at $3.67 million. It identified 85 colleges paying at least a former president or other high-ranking official at least $200,000, typically in deferred compensation and bonuses.

"You wonder if these colleges are giving away the store when they sign contracts with employees," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who has been a longtime critic of pay practices at not-for-profit institutions.

The latest survey does not include presidential salaries at public universities, which have been rising in recent years but are generally lower than at top private institutions. Last year, just one public university president, Ohio State’s Gordon Gee, earned more than $1 million.

Nine private college presidents exceeded the $1 million mark in last year’s survey of the 2006-07 data.

Jackson, a physicist and former Clinton administration official, has clashed with Rensselaer faculty and been criticized for spending time away from campus to serve on six corporate boards. But she volunteered this year to return 5 percent of her base salary–which the Chronicle reported at just more than $1 million in fiscal 2008–to be used for student scholarships. All salaries for senior administrators are frozen this year, RPI said.

Jackson received a strong statement of support from the university.

Applications to the school have doubled, research volume has tripled, and $690 million in new construction and renovations have taken place in Jackson’s decade as president, said William N. Walker, vice president for strategic communications and external relations, in a statement issued by the school. A request to interview Jackson was denied.

"The value she contributes to the Institute far exceeds the amount she is paid," Walker said.

Highest paid private college presidents
Here are the top 10 leaders in total compensation at private colleges for the 2007-08 academic year (Source: IRS tax reports analyzed by the Chronicle of Higher Education):

1. Shirley Ann Jackson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: $1,598,247
2. David Sargent, Suffolk University: $1,496,593
3. Steadman Upham, University of Tulsa: $1,485,275
4. Richard Meyers, Webster University: $1,429,738
5. Cornelius M. Kerwin, American University: $1,419,339
6. Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia University: $1,380,035
7. Donald V. DeRosa, University of the Pacific: $1,350,743
8. John E. Sexton, New York University: $1,297,475
9. Robert Bottoms, DePauw University: $1,296,455
10. Jerry C. Lee, National University: $1,189,777

(Note: Meyers and Bottoms are no longer serving as presidents of the respective universities. Total compensation might include deferred compensation and other benefits and is not necessarily take-home salary. Kerwin, who was named president in 2007, was provost for much of the period covered.)