Academic Economics

There have been a lot of articles in the last 5 or so years about the “adjunct crisis” and the economics of higher education, but I thought I might have a few readers that didn’t spend a lot of time reading Inside Higher Ed and might be intrigued/horrified about some of the weirdnesses of this industry. I’m going to number these, but they’re in the order they occurred to me, not necessarily in a logical or rigorous order.

1. First and foremost, how many students you teach has virtually no relationship to how much you make. If anything, it’s inversely correlated. Larger class sizes are typically lower level and are much more likely to be taught as freelance piecework by adjuncts, who make anywhere from $2500-6000 per 15-week class. Also, poorer colleges and universities typically have much higher teaching loads for full-time faculty as well; 4 courses a semester (usually called “a 4/4” — four courses in the fall/spring semester) is typical for a poorer college’s faculty, whereas a 3/2 or a 3/3 is more typical for an average college, and a rich college, which is paying its faculty more, is also giving them a 2/2 or even a 2/1 or 1/1 teaching load.

2. My personal salary history, post-grad school: $66K teaching a 2/3 (rich college, one-year appointmen); $48K teaching very little (rich college, research postdoc, taught 2 courses total in 3 years); $56K teaching a 3/3 (average college, unfortunately in a very expensive area so this doesn’t go far).

3. I’ve never adjuncted. I’m not saying I won’t in the future, but I would never try to do it full-time; it really would only be one or two courses on the side of something else. However, lots of people do try to make it work as a full-time income. They rarely make more than $20-25K a year.

4. How can colleges get away with paying so little? Oh lord. Well, because enough people are willing to take the money. Many of those people are currently graduate students, or recent graduate students trying to get full-time jobs and convinced that if they just do it for a year or two they’ll find something…. A lot of it, I think, can be chalked up to sunk costs. This is certainly part of why I’m still working in an academic job despite years of precarity. You spend 6-8 years getting a graduate degree, you’re good at teaching, you have experience teaching, the thought of retraining in something else is overwhelming/frightening, you don’t want to start over in a brand-new field at 35 or 40 or 50, so you keep doing what you’re doing.

5. So why don’t colleges just fire all their full-time faculty and move entirely to adjuncts, if there are so many people willing to work for those wages? Well. That’s kind of where we seem to be heading; we’re roughly halfway through the slow-motion disaster of university labor casualization. You may have seen the recent headline about one of the University of Wisconsin’s campuses eliminating a bunch of majors — English, philosophy, so on. This is really a labor story. Here’s the deal. UW-Stevens Point is going to keep offering lots and lots and lots of English classes, trust. They will probably also offer a fair number of philosophy courses. But eliminating the major means that they will not have to have any full-time faculty in the English department (or whatever), because for whatever weird reason (I confess I do not really understand why this is so, but trust me, it’s empirically true), having full-time faculty is now mostly tied to having majors, not having students in classes. Eliminating the major means eliminating the full-time faculty and replacing them with adjuncts.

I could tell so many stories in this vein — the number of reasons administrators can offer for why they are going to use contingent rather than full-time faculty labor is legion. The upshot is they’re going to keep doing it as long as they can get away with it, which is probably going to be for a long time.

6. Where exactly is all your tuition/loan money going? That’s going to vary depending on type of school. State schools in the U.S. have lost a lot of state support over the last few decades — a trend accelerated by the recession. There, rising tuition is probably mostly going to fill in the gap created by your state’s legislature, though again, there’s variance state to state. At private colleges, it’s more likely to be going to facilities, maybe administrator salaries (extra vice-presidents of this or that, lots of marketers and fundraisers). Athletics is an issue, but I think less of one than we often think, at least financially (the distorting effect on other areas of campus life is another post.) Lastly, there’s Baumol’s cost disease: higher education is a service provided by people, not a manufactured good, so it’s just gotten more and more expensive over time, like medical care. And like medical care, there hasn’t been adequate government support as that cost has grown. So individuals are bearing that extra cost. Some of those individuals are tuition payers (tuition going up), and some are faculty members (salaries going down).