6 July 2010

Free College for Everyone!

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:40 pm

Yesterday I came across this table showing that, between 1975 and 2007, the percentage of all US college faculty members who are tenured or tenure-track declined from 45% to 25%, while part-timers increased from 24% to 41%. This is a trend of which I’ve been made aware by several bloggers, including Shahar, who put up a post today citing these same statistics. What surprised me is that the total number of faculty jobs increased by 116% over that same 33-year interval. According to this Dept. of Education source, the number of college students increased by only 63% over that time period. What the heck? Have colleges been massively over-hiring for the last few decades?

Of course we have to take into consideration the fact that so many of these faculty jobs are part-time adjunct positions. How big is the “part” in part time? I have no ready access to the relevant data, but let’s assume that on average the adjuncts teach a half-time course load. Grad student teachers are included in the statistics too: assume that they teach quarter-time. So now, recalculating based on those adjustments, the total number of faculty FTEs increased 94% from 1975 to 2007. That’s still disproportionately high relative to student enrollment increases.

Here’s a thing: Looking at full-timers only — tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track — the number of faculty jobs increased by 56% from 1975 to 2007. This is only slightly below the 63% growth rate for student enrollment. Suppose the colleges made up for the gap with adjuncts: they’d have had 356K of them on the payroll in 2007, each working an average of half-time. In fact the number of 2007 part-timers was 685K. By implication, the American college system could be operating at a teacher-to-student level proportionate to 1975 by eliminating 320K part-time faculty jobs.

Let’s assume that an adjunct earns an average of $15K per year teaching college courses. Multiply that figure by 320K redundancies and the American colleges would have saved $4.8 billion in 2007. There were about 14.8 million FTE college students that year, so the savings would have been $324 per student. Even if we tack on the usual university-imposed 100% markup for overhead that’s not much savings, considering that colleges charge around $15K per student per year.

Now about those full-time faculty jobs: According to Table 13 in this AAUP report, full-time college faculty earn an average annual salary of $80K; factor in the benefits and the total compensation package comes to $103K per year. That’s pretty good dough, placing it in the top quarter of US jobs earnings-wise. And according to Table A from the same source, the pay has gotten considerably better over the years: since 1980, full-time college faculty salaries have increased 38% faster than the American cost of living. Suppose, then, that instead of getting rid of 320K half-time faculty at $15K each, the colleges eliminated 160K full-time faculty at $100K each. Now the savings would be $16 billion. Again, double that figure for overhead markup, and it’s a price reduction of over $2,100 per student per year.

So why have faculty jobs increased so much faster than the increase in college student enrollment over the past 35 years? Smaller class sizes? It’s worth noting that empirical studies consistently show that increasing class size has no measurable effect on student learning. Maybe offering more variety in course offerings means attracting more students overall but fewer students per class. Smaller teaching loads for full-timers? More professors on grant money buying their way out of teaching? More professors moving up to administrative jobs? The academicians’ guild making room for the newly-minted PhDs coming out of the pipeline every year, even if it means part-time work for crappy pay and no benefits?

How about this:

(1)  Go back to 1975 staffing levels — this would increase class sizes by an average of 63%.
(2)  Make all faculty jobs full-time, tenure track positions.
(3)  Set the average faculty compensation package at $80K per year.

Under this scenario the savings would be around $4800 per student per year, without incurring measurably adverse effects on student learning. In the US the government pays about $7K per public university student per year, so tuition would drop to $2K per year. I suspect we could find at least another $2K’s worth of administrative fat to trim. It’s a tuition-free university education for everyone!


  1. …Here’s another interesting tidbit.

    – In 2007, there were 677K full-time and 685K part-time faculty working at US colleges and universities.
    – Let’s assume that the working career of a college prof is 35 years (age 30 at Ph.D. to age 65 at retirement). Each year, then, 1/35th of the faculty retire and presumably must be replaced by new hires.
    – Therefore, in order to replace retirees in 2007, colleges would have had to fill 677K/35 = 19K full-time faculty slots and 685K/35 = 20K part-time slots. That’s 19K + 20K = 39K new hires to maintain staffing equilibrium.
    – In 2003, 46K new PhD degrees were granted by US universities; let’s say that the number went up slightly to 47K by 2007. Assume that 80% of these new doctorates want to work in academe. That’s 47K x .80 = 38K — almost exactly the number of new F/T and P/T faculty slots that would have opened up in 2007.

    Is it just a coincidence that supply almost exactly equals demand here? I doubt it. If colleges hired only full-time faculty and no part-time adjuncts, there would be way too many new PhDs coming on the market every year, immediately forcing something like one-fourth of them out of academe altogether. Instead, the university departments restrict full-time hires and expand part-time openings, thereby spreading the wealth (or in this case, the poverty) to all the new PhDs who want to stay in the academy. In this way the full-timers are able to keep their salaries growing at a rate faster than inflation, since the part-timers pull the average pay rates down substantially. And by making sure there are enough cheap-ass adjunct slots available, the full-timers keep hope alive for all those underemployed adjuncts who aspire to make the big time (i.e., the tenure track) some day. Hope helps keep the pipeline of grad students full, which in turn keeps the full-time faculty supplied with cheap/free labor for working on their research projects, teaching classes for even less pay than the adjuncts, etc.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 July 2010 @ 10:33 am

    • This would be great thinking, if full-time faculty had anything to do with staffing parameters. Those are admin decisions. So the ‘correct’ conspiracy theory is the one where admins keep costs down, maintain staffing flexibility, and undermine faculty self-governance by loading up on grad programs and expanding the available pool of desperate, powerless contingent labor.

      Full-time faculties go for this on the front end because teaching grad students flatters their status fantasies. They’ll accept grad student and adjunct teaching because simultaneously class-sizes are being driven up by the admins and teaching big undergrad surveys sucks. By the time they notice their environment is degraded, they can no longer hire status-bearing full-time colleagues at the customary rate, and their already-limited powers of self-determination have evaporated, it’s all over but the squawking.


      Comment by Carl — 7 July 2010 @ 11:25 am

  2. It’s still a plausible conspiracy theory even if admin is pulling the levers. I’m sure you’d agree that full-timers do tend to benefit in a number of ways from this two-tiered labor structure — get cheap research assistants, opt out of the intro survey classes, keep their salaries going up faster than the CPI, etc. — even as they wring their hands and say there’s nothing they can do about it.

    Why are class sizes being driven up if student-teacher ratios have measurably decreased over the last 35 years? That was the central observation of the post: faculty hires have been going up considerably faster than student enrollments. According to the numbers I’ve been using, the student-teacher ratio in US colleges went down from 15.8 to 13.4 between 1975 and 2007.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 July 2010 @ 11:43 am

  3. Running to the next thing, but: I agree that there is are certain elective affinities between senior faculty and admin interests at one stage of the process. As I said, it’s enough for the situation to get over the hump to decisive faculty disadvantage. But let’s not mistake short-term for long-term interests, or inertia for intention.

    Re: numbers, here’s a place where big numbers hide important local distinctions. The U.S. higher ed system comes in at least three tiers: cattle-call public mass ed, R1/grad factory, and boutique private. I don’t doubt that in some medium term enough people are paying for the perceived advantages of 2 and 3 to offset 1 in the averages. But notice too that any faculty counts, so you can have a lot of intellectual strawberry-pickers on staff and count that toward ratio.


    Comment by Carl — 7 July 2010 @ 2:59 pm

  4. Correct me if I’m wrong, Carl, but the administrators who make staffing decisions — department chairs, deans, provost — pretty much always come from the ranks of the tenured professors, don’t they? And while the CEOs and finance guys might be dicks, at least they’re not tasked with maximizing shareholder profits like most other industries (except for the U. of Phoenix and ilk). The cost of college has doubled the rate of inflation for decades, which means an ever-expanding pot of money has been spread around to people who actually work for the colleges.

    I’m not one of those guys who want colleges to be run more like businesses, who think professors ought to spend more time in the real world — far from it. Education is about the closest thing the US has to a socialistic economic sector where the workers really do control the means of production, which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. More’s the pity that college has turned into what it is: a two-tiered workforce of well-paid full-timers and exploited adjuncts, alienated from the top management number-crunchers, while their services have become a luxury that fewer and fewer students can afford. As far as I can tell the faculty seem unwilling to confront the high costs they’re imposing on taxpayers and students and to come up with their own solutions. I’d be fine with university presidents working for the faculty instead of vice versa: maybe they’d work together more effectively. And maybe then the faculty would figure out how to tighten their own budgets instead of having solutions they don’t like imposed on them from The Man.

    What do you think should be done, Carl? Of course I don’t think anything approaching the draconian slashes I put forward in my post would ever come to pass. What would the profs do to cut costs with minimal adverse effects on educating students and faculty quality of life?


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 July 2010 @ 6:55 pm

  5. Last night Shahar sent me this article, which presents the results of a study of the effect of “exposure” to part-time teachers (adjuncts and grad students) on freshman student retention at 6 NC universities. For 5 of the universities the effect was adverse: taking courses taught by part-timers increased the likelihood that the student wouldn’t return for the sophomore year, even after controlling for other predictors like GPA. The researcher speculated that part-timers’ teaching isn’t as good as full-timers: they spend less time preparing, are less readily accessible to students in and outside of class. She also noted that part-timers are more likely to teach big lecture sections, which in other research have been shown to reduce retention. As they say, further research is needed.

    From a number-crunching perspective — [Note: I’ve corrected some of these numbers from an earlier version of this comment] — the allocation of faculty to students seems ill-advised. Let’s say you’ve got a freshman intro lecture class of 150 students taught by an adjunct. Based on the data we’d project that 1 of these students will not return to school next year specifically because of “exposure” to the toxic adjunct. That’s 3 years of lost tuition and fees and state funding, which at a state university = $15K x 3 years = $45K lost from this single class. Let’s say that the university paid the adjunct $5K to teach this class, versus say $20K they’d have had to pay a full professor to teach it. So the university saved $15K on teaching costs, but lost $45K on unrealized revenues from the dropouts: that’s a net loss of $30K.

    Alternatives: (1) Have the full-timers teach the big classes, letting the part-timers teach smaller classes so that the adverse revenue effect of “exposure” is minimized. (2) Either pay the part-timers a wage comparable to the full-timers, or else hire them on at full time, giving them an incentive to put in the time in order to be less toxic teachers.

    I suspect that, beyond the competency of the part-time teachers, there’s a more general feeling of alienation that permeates the scene. Part-time teachers, financially exploited as temps, have no great investment in the institution or its students. Put them in front of a big lecture hall filled with kids who are just starting the college experience, and the students too feel financially exploited and disinvested.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 July 2010 @ 10:51 am

  6. Here’s a relevant post from Decasia, the blog where I found the table of faculty staffing changes. In his post Eli explores the possibility of subjecting the status and pay hierarchy of academe to class analysis.


    Comment by ktismatics — 9 July 2010 @ 11:36 am

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