Each year, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) puts out a study on faculty compensation. This year’s study takes on a somewhat alarmist tone. Its title, “The Devaluing of Higher Education” suggests that there is some ominous trend at work that could make “faculty positions less appealing for the next generation of scholars.”
The difficulty, according to the AAUP researcher, is that in 2005-06, average faculty salaries increased less than the rate of inflation. While average gross pay rose by 3.1 percent, inflation (measured by the Consumer Price Index) increased by 3.4 percent. That’s a pretty small erosion of purchasing power and since the inflation rate was unexpectedly high – it had been around 2.5 percent for several years – it’s hard to see this as a serious “devaluing” of higher education. Rather, it looks like a minor bump in the road. The study doesn’t say whether there have been years when average faculty compensation exceeded the rate of inflation, but that has undoubtedly occurred.
Of course, the AAUP wants to get as much mileage as possible for its members out of this supposedly bad news. Therefore, it is “spun” in a way that can be used to argue for increasing pay for professors. “[I]t would seem imperative for colleges and universities to continue to attract the nation’s brightest scholars to their faculties,” the report states. “If they fail to do so, the quality of U.S. higher education will diminish. Now more than ever, all those with a stake in higher education need to grasp the importance of salary and benefits in recruiting and retaining the best-qualified faculty.”
That’s pretty good pleading, but there doesn’t appear to be any reason to believe that the mix of monetary and non-monetary benefits currently offered to lure people into the teaching ranks is slipping so low that we risk losing a lot of competent educators to other endeavors. We certainly want some of the nation’s brightest in the teaching ranks, but we also want a lot of them working in business, the professions, and charitable sector, and so forth.
How would we know if there really was a problem of undercompensation? It wouldn’t be from looking at statistical averages across the whole of the profession. Instead, individual schools looking to fill particular positions would detect a problem if, when they advertise a faculty opening, they didn’t attract competent applicants. If a college has an opening for a sociology professor and receives 100 applications for it at the posted compensation, there’s no reason to worry. On the other hand, the same institution might have an opening for a professor of finance and if it attracted just two applications from people with weak or unproven teaching ability, that would indicate that the compensation is too low. It would then need to offer more to induce a capable finance instructor to give up his next best opportunity and teach at the school.
Colleges and universities compete in the labor market and just like businesses, they have to be attentive to market realities. And there is every reason to believe that they are. They continually make marginal adjustments that enable them to be able to employ professors, administrators, and all the other people they need. The invisible hand of the market is at work to prevent any problem from developing.
The weakest part of the study is its analysis of compensation for part-time faculty, a.k.a. adjunct professors. Many institutions employ adjunct professors to teach just a single class on a contract basis. Frequently, adjuncts are written about as if they were an exploited class.
The study argues that the adequacy of compensation for part-time faculty should be determined by asking how much an individual would earn if he worked full-time at the compensation paid for part-time work. Doing the math, the study finds that adjuncts would be hardly above the poverty line if they did that.
That sounds pretty bad, but it’s the wrong way to look at it. Most adjunct faculty teach part-time in addition to their regular jobs. The school and the adjunct professor enter into a contract that’s mutually acceptable. In exchange for some extra money, the professor gives up some of his free time and fulfills the teaching obligation. There isn’t any exploitation. Nor is there any reason to think that adjunct professors are necessarily worse than full-timers in teaching a course.
Such contracts enable schools to economize. Rather than having to hire someone full-time to fill a slot that requires only a few hours of work per week, part-time contracting allows a school to put a competent instructor in front of students where it might not otherwise be feasible.
Undoubtedly, there are some adjuncts who do try to make a living just on their earnings from several positions. That is undoubtedly a difficult life. The only solution, however, is at the individual level. If you have made a mistake and invested in getting PhD credentials in a field where the demand is weak, you’ll have to either accept low earnings or do something else. (The same is true in other fields, such as the legal profession.)
Inadvertently, however, the report points to the reason why there are some PhDs who have to eke out a living by holding down multiple adjunct positions – we have a surplus of PhDs.
George Leef is the Director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Reprinted with permission.