Addendum to Aaron Barlow’s Post on Contingent and Adjunct Faculty

Another element of the broader issues addressed in Aaron’s post is the disparity in the nature of adjuncting–of teaching part-time–in different disciplines and in covering different levels of courses.

The adjunct faculty in professional schools very likely have full-time employment outside of the university. The same is true for the great majority of adjunct faculty who teach upper-level or graduate courses in disciplines such as business, engineering, and education, in particular educational leadership.

But the majority of the adjunct faculty who teach part-time in the humanities and the social sciences and who cover sections of core or general-education courses have no employment outside of the university and are trying to cobble together incomes from two to four part-time positions. The average number of institutions at which they teach has clearly edged upward as most institutions have limited the number of courses available to individual adjuncts in order to avoid providing health insurance to them. These faculty are trying to decide whether they may still have any sort of realistic shot at securing a full-time position within academia or they ought to give up on academia and look elsewhere for some sort of sustainable employment.

At my own university, we have just over 400 tenured and tenure-track faculty, just under 200 non-tenure-eligible full-time faculty, and although the number varies more considerably from year to year, somewhere between 475 and 600 adjunct faculty per year. That means that somewhere between 30% and 40% of our faculty are tenured or tenure-track; about 15%-20% are full-time non-tenure-eligible; and 40%-50% are adjunct or part-time faculty. In other words, somewhere between 60%-70% of our faculty are full- or part-time contingent faculty. These totals are not out of line with the numbers that I have seen commonly reported: 28%-30% tenured or tenure-track faculty; 18%-20% full-time contingent faculty; and 50%-52% part-time contingent faculty.

Moreover, I have been compiling spreadsheets of the e-mail addresses of faculty at all types of institutions across Ohio, and I can tell you that although my university is open-enrollment and generally classified as third- or fourth-tier, it is doing much better than many other institutions in terms of these percentages. At many of the smaller private colleges and universities, the proportion of part-time to full-time faculty is much higher than at Ohio’s public universities, and, at the community colleges in Ohio, 75%-90% of the faculty are part-time. Indeed, at many of the community colleges, the full-time faculty, who already have very high standard teaching loads, routinely supplement their low incomes by teaching overloads. So, if they were not teaching all of those overloads, the numbers would be even worse than they now are.

The newspapers cited by Phil Magness reported the totals for all full- and part-time contingent faculty as if they were the totals for just part-time or adjunct faculty. Newspapers make these kinds of errors all the time, and it is also not at all unusual for the errors to be repeated from one source to the next.

But something else that occurs all of the time is that when a set of numbers becomes widely reported, someone eventually focuses on the places in which the numbers have been distorted or misreported in order to make the entire set of numbers seem dubious, if not completely erroneous.

I have seen articles similar to Phil Magness’s that very determinedly and self-assuredly dispute the existence, never mind the escalation, of administrative bloat or of student debt as serious problems that need to be addressed. So how is one to answer such a claim, especially when the evidence seems very plainly manifested everywhere one turns in one’s own institution and in the institutions at which one’s close acquaintances work as faculty and staff? How does one contest what is so clearly a problem that “proving” its existence seems tantamount to “proving” the obvious?

A broader equivalent is having to “prove” that there are large numbers of deeply impoverished people in this country who would do just about anything not to be impoverished but who simply cannot find a way out of poverty. If pushed to provide “proof,” I have the great urge to say that one simply has to drive through the poorer sections of almost any community, urban or rural, and ask yourself whether it seems possible that the majority of people living in such very sub-standard housing and wholly degraded neighborhoods are very content to live out their lives in such oppressively bleak surroundings?

When a problem is so plainly manifested to anyone in almost any college or university, arguing over the numbers and the trends in the numbers often seems more an exercise in deflecting meaningful argument than in engaging in such an argument.

Indeed, as I pointed out in a recent post in order to make a similar point on another topic, we live in an era in which data collection is so prevalent that it often seems almost omnipresent—and overwhelmingly so. Therefore, when there is incomplete or otherwise insufficient data on almost anything—but especially on an issue that has been publicly discussed for some time—there is some reason why the data has not been collected.

Most data on faculty employment is provided by institutions. Yet, to this point, the closest thing that we have to a survey of adjunct or part-time faculty salaries is the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Adjunct Project []It provides information on adjunct compensation by institution and by discipline, and it now includes quite a bit of data. But that data is unevenly reported and illustrative, rather than systematically gathered and averaged.

If we are serious about understanding the challenges being faced by new Ph.D.’s (or those with Ph.D.’s who are quickly becoming “old”) who are finding it very difficult to find full-time, never mind tenure-track, positions, we need to survey and to track those prospective faculty as they take on work as adjunct faculty in order to start paying off their student loans. When I was on the job market more than a quarter of a century ago, I found the job search very challenging, but I get the sense that those were truly halcyon times compared to what new Ph.D.’s are confronting now.

To close, if things really have not changed very much—either in terms of faculty hiring, administrative bloat, or student debt—why is there so little evidence, anecdotal or statistical, that faculty and students are content with the current state of higher education?  Despite any ideological stereotypes to the contrary, we are not so uniformly a bunch of malcontents actively seeking out reasons for discontent. It is very paradoxical–indeed almost maddeningly so–that the “reformers” and “innovators” keep telling us that things are in such a sorry state that higher education needs a massive infusion of new ideas, if not a complete overhaul, but when we point to any of the problems in higher education that are of most concern to us and to our students, the same people who are all for “reform” and “innovation” seem determined to tell us that the problems are either of our own making or of our own imagining.


Here is a chart published in the Kansas City Star from more up-to-date AAUP data:

F-T P-T Faculty 1

Another bar graph:

F-T P-T Faculty 2

Here is a graph that includes graduate teaching fellows with part-time faculty:

F-T P-T Faculty 3

Here are some pie and bar graphs from universities on the distribution of their faculty.

University of Colorado at Boulder:

F-T P-T Faculty 4

Two graphs for all 46 colleges and universities in New Hampshire:

F-T P-T Faculty 5

F-T P-T Faculty 6

And a graph for Massachusetts’ community colleges:

F-T P-T Faculty 7






6 thoughts on “Addendum to Aaron Barlow’s Post on Contingent and Adjunct Faculty

  1. For the record, Martin, I actually don’t dispute administrative bloat or student loan growth. Those are both empirically validated trends. The claims we see repeated in the media and trotted out by many adjunct activists simply aren’t borne out in the stats though. Here’s a quick chart I put together from US Dept. of Education employment data, which tracks the % of full time vs. part time faculty back to 1970. As you can see from the chart, the biggest dip took place between 1970 and 1977. From 1978 to 2005 there was a more gradual decline in the % of full-time positions. Then in 2005 it flattened out around the low 50s, where it’s hovered ever since. There’s actually no evidence that the Financial Crisis or other related events since 2005 materially altered adjunct employment trends in the ways that are often claimed. We were at 52% full time in 2005, and we’re at 51% in the most recent numbers (2013) – statistically speaking, that’s no change at all beyond normal year-to-year fluctuations.

    As I also noted in my original post the other day, current adjunct numbers are inflated upward because they include something that had a nearly negligible presence in the 1970s but boomed in the 2000s – the rise of For-Profit higher ed, which uses almost exclusively adjunct instructors.

    It is entirely true that the % of full time faculty has gone down since the early 70s (though, interestingly enough, NOT the absolute numbers of full time faculty – that’s grown dramatically from 369K in 1970 to 791K today). But the interesting part of the story is that most of the decline happened DECADES ago. It’s a trend that peaked between 30 and 40 years ago, and at least for the last decade has not substantially changed – all despite the recent rise in rhetoric suggesting otherwise. As I noted in the original post though, the stats are clear on this one and they say: don’t panic.

    • While I agree that the overall trend has been steady and activists are wrong to frame this as a “recent crisis,” and wrong to reproduce endlessly the “76% adjunct” error, your final comment: that the numbers say “don’t panic” is dead wrong. Many or most schools flatlined per course pay for 10-15 years from the mid 70s until the early 1990s and some even into the twienty first century. This flatlining of PTF pay for decades is the –along with the parrallel steep rise in student loan burden (and the necessity of taking out larger and larger student loans to cover growing tuititon costs and the withdrawal of some graduate student support) combined to make the plight of the adjunct much more devastating in the twenty-first century. So the panic is not because there are, necessarily, a tremendous growth in “more” PTF, but that the economics of part time teaching has become, in most enviorments, utterly unsustainable. The combination of 1) typically flat wages–or very modest growth in pay, 2) ballooning educational costs for the advanced degrees necessary to teach in the HE system, and 3) the sometimes dramatic spikes in COL over the past thirty years are the balls you want to keep your eyes on if you aim to do meaningful analysis.

      • Educational costs, student loans, etc. are all interesting issues in their own right. They are not determining the labor supply/demand dynamics of academic employment though. That’s a function of the number of job applicants exceeding the number of available positions, EVEN AS the total number of full time faculty jobs has increased dramatically since 1970 and continues to increase every year to the present.

        Adjunct positions have certainly increased as well, but the main driver here is not budgetary cuts or a phasing out of full time positions as is commonly asserted – it’s actually the boom in For-Profit Higher Ed, which almost exclusively employs adjuncts (and usually at per-course wages that are well below traditional colleges and universities). Take away the University of Phoenixes and Corinthian Colleges of the world and – guess what – adjunct growth would probably drop by more than a quarter. Separate 2-year community colleges (which are also historically more adjunct-dependent) from the traditional 4-years, and the adjunct growth rate drops to a level comparable to the full time growth rate.

        As far as loans go for seeking employment in higher ed, there’s a simple rule to follow and it falls entirely on the job applicant: don’t take on debt to get a PhD. If a department is unwilling to fund you as a grad student, you probably shouldn’t go to that department. And if you are unable to attract any funding for your PhD, you probably shouldn’t seek one. Sorry to be blunt, but that one is entirely on the job applicant – not the employment market in academia.

  2. The slowing of adjunct growth (about 3% a year on average in the last 30 years) would only reduce the total adjunct population by 1200 (out of 760,000), using average trends, and would not in any way “solve’ the problem, or reduce the rightly accelerating outrage triggered by the deprofessionalization of higher eduation intructional staff. Your notion, Magness, that there is a “simple” rule that might make all educational and employment prospect decisions rational is unpersuasive. There is no reliable forecasting of employment prospects that academics could have used or could use today. The landscape changes, or could change, or might change, or doesn’t, but no one really “knows” the terms of these changes, or not changes ten years in advance (the average time it takes to earn a Phd), or even 4-5 years in advance–the time it takes to make the decision about amasters program, find a masters program, enroll, and complete the necessary course work. . We know the stocks were overvalued, and we “know” that at some point the bubble will/would/has break/broken, but very sophisticated modeling and drilled down analyses of the history of the stock market have thus far been not very good at forecasting the timing, nature, or velocity of economic consequences or causes. Likewise, whether a faculty member has $50,000 student debt for a MA (the required minimum qualification in most fields), or a $100,000 for a PHd, the fact is that the classes taught by the 760,000 badly paid PTF who do have, typically, large student loan debt DO need to be taught, and will continue to need to be taught. The aggregate student loan debt for the education necessary to teach the roughly 1.5 million classes taught be PTF, in serving approximately 30.5 million students, is still in place, and is still unlikely to be repayable at current pay rates for PTF. (assuming an average of half time load, and 30 students per class–metrics well supported by the available data). If however, the evil objective of those wishing to turn education itself into an additional income stream for a small cadre of manipulators of the economy, the culture, and civic life (following prisons, hospitals, and infrastructer/services privatizing) —and if the “adjunct problem”–ie making living as an adjunct utterly unsutainable, is meant to drive state legislators into the arms of the waiting ed profiteers, well, then everything makes perfect sense. If the plan, to use conspiracy theory framing, is to drive academics out of academia, manufacture scarcity of qualified teachers, and then to present desperate parents, legilslators, and failing institutions with the “online magical solution.” then your “narrative” is well tuned to serve this particular master.

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