College professors are doing well; faculty salaries have more than recovered since the recession, especially in recent years.
Though most American workers have seen their wages stagnate for decades, full-time faculty members who have been in the same position for at least two years earned 9 percent more in 2015-16 than 2007-8, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The data comes from an American Association of University Professors annual survey on the economic status of professors.
Though the report shows strong salary growth, faculty members have some anxiety. Since the 1970s, “full-time tenured positions has declined by 26 percent” and “full-time tenure-track positions has dropped by 50 percent.” Adjunct and part-time faculty positions have skyrocketed, partially because those positions are much cheaper and colleges have so many applicants from aspiring professors. The AAUP estimated that part-time workers comprised 41 percent of the academic labor force.
A shift toward part-time instruction has lowered costs for colleges, but it’s changed the traditional job structure of professors.
Much of the salary increase has happened in recent years. The past two years, average salary growth was 3 percent each year.
“We can continue down the current path of increasing reliance on contingent faculty positions and accept the negative consequences, or we can take bold steps to rebuild the tenure system that made American colleges and universities the best in the world,” the report noted, describing higher education as “at a crossroads.”
The AAUP is careful to note that faculty salaries don’t mean higher tuition bills for students. The salary jump hasn’t kept pace with overall cost growth.
“After adjusting for inflation, average net prices for tuition, fees, and room and board have increased approximately 28 percent since 2007–08 and have resulted in record levels of student debt,” the report noted, citing data from the College Board.
That dismissal, however, isn’t fair. Logically, salary increases require universities to spend more on faculty.
Instructional spending accounts for about 32 percent of expenditures at two- and four-year public institutions. That dwarfs other expenditure categories such as hospital services (21 percent), institutional support/auxiliary enterprises/independent operations (19 percent), and academic support/student services (14 percent).
Professors aren’t earning outrageous salaries, like some college presidents and athletic coaches. Student demand, and the expectations for a college in modern America, however, pushes costs up incrementally. Americans want to pay for higher education like Europeans, but every reasonable demand they make for what higher education should do makes the aggregate product expensive. Lower total state support for higher education since the recession and administrative bloat can’t account for all tuition increases. Easy access to student aid has helped make the amenities and services of college possible while also increasing costs.
“Considerable challenges lie ahead for faculty and institutions of higher education. Chief among them is the need to reverse the soaring rates of contingency and rebuild a faculty with a strong core of full-time, tenure-track positions,” the report noted.
That has obvious benefits for potential full-time, tenure-track faculty. However, students will carry the financial burden of any resurgence in a faculty that looks more like 1976 than 2016.