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!