Colleges Increasingly Use Contingent Faculty to Cut Costs, but Savings are Modest When Accounting for Compensation of All Employees

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Colleges are increasingly hiring lower-paid part-time and limited-term contingent faculty, who in 2013 made up more than half of all instructors in higher education, finds an American Institutes for Research (AIR) study for the TIAA Institute. This trend has led to cost savings in salaries and benefits for instructors, but hasn’t translated to the same level of savings when looking at the total compensation of all employees.

Part-time, also known as adjunct, contingent faculty working on contract, range from half of instructors at public bachelor’s degree-granting institutions to 83 percent at public community colleges.

Colleges are increasingly hiring lower-paid part-time and limited-term contingent faculty, who in 2013 made up more than half of all instructors in higher education, finds an American Institutes for Research (AIR) study for the TIAA Institute. This trend has led to cost savings in salaries and benefits for instructors, but hasn’t translated to the same level of savings when looking at the total compensation of all employees.

Part-time, also known as adjunct, contingent faculty working on contract, range from half of instructors at public bachelor’s degree-granting institutions to 83 percent at public community colleges. At public flagship universities, they account for 68 percent of faculty at the University of Washington-Seattle and about 40 percent of instructors at the University of California-Berkeley, the University of North Carolina and the University of Texas.

Between 2003 and 2013, the share of all faculty who were contingent increased from:

  • 45 to 62 percent at public bachelor’s degree-granting institutions,
  • 52 to 60 percent at private bachelor’s-granting schools,
  • 44 to 50 percent at public research universities and
  • 80 to 83 percent at community colleges.

The drop in tenure-track faculty has had a number of possible causes. For example, colleges and universities have cited efforts to contain staff costs at a time of tight state budgets, combined with the need to increase the total number of instructors, as reasons not to make greater long-term investments in tenure-track faculty.

There are concerns about what this reduction means for low-income and part-time students, who often are in greater need of instructor support and are generally less likely to seek help. While some research suggests that contingent faculty, who are not as integrated with their schools, are less likely to provide support, other studies show students may be more engaged with contingent faculty because of their more relevant and current experience in the field.

The AIR study shows that although hiring more contingent faculty helped schools tighten instructional compensation costs, total savings for all types of employees were more modest. When looking at total compensation per full-time faculty at private four-year schools, those with high shares of contingent instructors spent 37 percent less than those with small shares. But when looking at total compensation per full-time employee, this difference narrows to 19 percent. At public four-year schools, those with large shares of contingent instructors spent 24 percent less on total compensation per full-time faculty over those with small shares, with the difference dropping to 14 percent when accounting for total compensation per full-time employee.

Public four-year institutions appear to use savings in instructional costs to increase spending on maintenance, administrative and student-services staff in areas such as recruiting, admissions, counseling, student organizations and athletics. While community colleges and private four-year colleges also reduced instructional costs, they showed little cost-shifting.

The study, using data from AIR’s Delta Cost Project, is published in two reports, The Shifting Academic Workforce: Where Are the Contingent Faculty? and The Relationship Between Part-Time and Contingent Faculty and Institutional Spending. Both can be found at http://www.air.org.

About AIR
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education, and workforce productivity. For more information, visit http://www.air.org.

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Diana Huynh
American Institutes for Research
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