Are Full-Time Faculty Being Adjunctified? Recent Data Show Otherwise

The “adjunctification” phenomenon is a familiar concern to most recent Ph.D. graduates, as well as a recurring criticism of perceived trends in faculty employment. One professor recently wrote that it was a professional “shame.”

This issue seems to have hit a boiling point in the past few years, with a multitude of articles and reports putting forth a narrative about tenure track faculty positions being replaced by part-time adjuncts as a cost-saving measure. The combination of lower pay and less job security resonates among scholars who have attempted to make a living from one or more of these positions.

Some simple statistics lend credence to the adjunctification thesis. The percentage of faculty who hold adjunct appointments increased precipitously over the past four decades. According to Department of Education, adjuncts made up approximately 22 percent of the instructional workforce in 1970. Today that number sits just shy of half of all faculty, leading many critics and activists to conclude that traditional full-time academic employment is being phased out.

But what if a fundamental assumption of the adjunctification narrative is wrong? What if there were a different explanation for the growth of the adjunct market, or one that did not involve replacing full-time faculty?

As concerns about the adjunctification of the universities reach a fever pitch, the statistics unambiguously point to a continuously shrinking adjunct workforce.

Despite the common narrative’s intuitive resonance, the instructional workforce of higher education is not being “adjunctified” in any conventional sense. In fact, full-time hiring in U.S. academia has increased every year since the early 1990s. While adjunct hiring rates grew as well for most of this period, they actually peaked in 2011 and have been on the decline ever since.

This pattern reversal has gone almost entirely unnoticed and many higher education commentators remain in denial. The American Association of University Professors, for example, recently asserted that adjunct hiring “continued to trend higher” in its most recent academic employment report—even though its own cited statistical source shows otherwise.

Six years ago adjuncts reached almost perfect parity with full-time faculty, with about 762,000 professors employed in each type of position according to the Department of Education’s IPEDS survey. Recently released preliminary numbers for 2015 reveal that full time faculty positions have surpassed the 800,000 mark. The most recent adjunct numbers dropped to a position just shy of 740,000, meaning the university system has actually shed over 20,000 adjunct positions on net during the same period.

These data reveal a strange paradox of academic employment. As concerns about the adjunctification of the universities reach a fever pitch, the statistics unambiguously point to a continuously shrinking adjunct workforce. The main reason sits just beneath the surface of the data and derives from another well-known pattern in U.S. higher education: the bursting of the for-profit university bubble over the same period of time as the recent adjunct contraction.

Now that the for-profit bubble is bursting due to issues of fiscal solvency and a government crackdown on the standards used by for-profit accrediting bodies, the adjunct workforce is experiencing its own parallel contraction.

For-profit institutions were in fact a primary driver in the adjunct boom that started the early 1990s. While colleges and universities of this type differ widely in product quality and accreditation standards, they also tend to rely upon adjunct instructors at disproportionately high rates. The adjunct workforce at a typical not-for-profit college or university averages between roughly 30 to 40 percent of the faculty, depending on the institution type. By contrast, the typical for-profit institution relies on adjuncts for more than 90 percent of its teaching duties.

As for-profit institutions grew, so did the concentration of adjunct positions they brought with them. Now that the for-profit bubble is bursting due to issues of fiscal solvency and a government crackdown on the standards used by for-profit accrediting bodies, the adjunct workforce is experiencing its own parallel contraction.

The statistics support this alternative explanation for the adjunctification phenomenon. At the start of the boom in 1994, there were 345 for-profit campuses in the United States. This figure blossomed to 1,451 campuses in 2012, but then dropped to 1,262 for-profit campuses at the start of the 2015 school year. It has likely declined even further with the closing of for-profit giant ITT Tech amid accreditation issues in September 2016, and with similar ongoing financial problems at other for-profit colleges.

As Figure 1 shows, the for-profit sector was the largest contributor to the adjunct boom that happened between the mid-1990s and its peak in 2011. When for-profit adjunct positions are separated from the totals, adjunct hiring growth in the same period assumes a relatively stable pattern that directly parallels the expansion of full-time faculty positions.

Note that this finding does not diminish the many problems of salary, rank, and job security that often characterize adjunct employment. Rather, it shows that these problems are acutely felt in for-profit institutions.

Traditional not-for-profit colleges and universities have proven more resistant to adjunctification on the whole. While adjunct use at these institutions has increased numerically, it is nowhere near the boiling point that much of the adjunctification rhetoric claims.

What, then, drives academic employment trends? A recent study of the education workforce by Jason Brennan and myself suggests they follow demand for college degrees. For the past 40 years, university hiring of full-time faculty has closely tracked overall student enrollment numbers. When for-profit campuses are excluded from the picture, American universities have consistently maintained a stable ratio of about 1 full-time professor to every 25 students.

These figures are representative of the entire university system. This does not mean that there are 25 students in every classroom, or that large public universities adhere to the same ratio as small liberal arts colleges. The ratio does however reflect a system-wide responsiveness to student enrollment demands. By implication, full-time positions on the whole are not being “adjunctified” and replaced by lower-paid part-time jobs, though additional adjunct hiring suggests that many universities are trying to offer supplemental course times and additional subjects of instruction through the use of a greater number of part-time instructors.

Many issues still arise from the changing higher education employment market. Issues of adjunct pay, job security, and work conditions remain a concern. The full-time academic market also faces separate issues of contingent employment and the growth of non-tenure track faculty. Adjunct ranks are not actually exploding in numbers though, despite this common belief. And if the current trajectory of the for-profit education sector continues, we should expect a further contraction in the size of the adjunct workforce.

  • DrOfnothing

    This is a pretty decent analysis. Another factor at work is that Research 1 universities are in danger of losing their Carnegie-1 status (a requirement for certain levels of research funding) if too much of their instruction is done by faculty without terminal degrees (i.e. Ph.D.s).

    A crucial change not considered here, however, is the rise of full-time, non-tenure-track faculty, which accounts for much of increase in full-time faculty overall. This has gone from 10% in 1975 to 17% in 2014. Part-time faculty went from 24% to 41% in the same period. Across that time, Full-time, tenured faculty and full-time tenure-track faculty declined significantly, from 29% and 16% to 21% and 8%, respectively.

    FTNT faculty–designated through a variety of terms such as “teaching,” “visiting,” or “collateral” faculty–invariably carry heavier teaching loads (sometimes twice as much) receive lower salaries, have no job security, and have access to no time or funding for research. Increasingly, US university departments operate on a two-track faculty system. There is a group of FTT and FTTT faculty that do the bulk of the research, and another that do the much of the teaching, but no research. Universities like this system because they still get prestige and research income from the first group, while the latter allow for higher enrolments and therefore tuition dollars. It also gives them flexibility, since they can hire and fire non-tenure-track faculty at will.

    For both the students and the faculty, however, this is a huge issue. Faculty see teaching and research as interlinked activities, and having overworked, full-time teachers who do no research benefits neither the discipline nor the students nor the profession.

    And as Leef pointed out in another article, tenure is the only mechanism that can protect faculty who go against the intellectual or political grain in either their research, their teaching, or both.

    So, the analysis above is not incorrect, but it is missing a crucial trend that has profound implications for the future of US universities as generators of new knowledge and as institutions where both high-quality teaching and intellectual freedom are highly valued.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    “As for-profit institutions grew, so did the concentration of adjunct positions they brought with them. Now that the for-profit bubble is bursting due to issues of fiscal solvency and a government crackdown on the standards used by for-profit accrediting bodies, the adjunct workforce is experiencing its own parallel contraction.”

    Sure, but where is the analysis for 4-yr and 2-yr colleges? Title IV postsecondary vo-tech for adults? What happens when these enrollments are considered, part- vs full-time, for-profit and public? Adjunctification reigns supreme in these realms and has for decades.

    At the higher end, how much of the strength in full-time instruction stems from the run away growth in advanced degrees, MBAs, JDs, PhDs, EdDs, etc., (i.e., credential inflation and the induced need for overschooling)? This is where the growth has been lately. And this is where accreditation standards actually matter.

    • bryanalexander

      And community colleges, which employ both large numbers and proportions of adjuncts, have been shedding students for five years.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    We are missing the meaning of adjunctification in this article, I think.

    An adjunct is powerlessness, is poorly pay, without social security tax payments, no health insurance, receives poor administrative and office support (if any), has low status, poor access to office space (or no office space), is treated like a serf bound to the feudal lord (department chairman). This is the true horror of adjunctification — the calculated betrayal of a naive academic and disciplinary commitment by those willing to hold out the promise of full-time status, but never delivering.

    • DrOfnothing

      It’s a savage business. The one thing that could protect them is the one thing vehemently opposed by JMC writers, unionization.

      Unfortunately, that is a position shared by administrators and a small but influential set of senior faculty.

      Mitchell Langbert (aka “the Langbot”), for example, opposed better pay and benefits for adjuncts on the grounds that it would threaten his dental plan and, presumably, his power-tie-and-tailored-suit budget.


      • mitchelllangbert

        I suppose that left-wing academics believe that using a pseudonym entitles them to engage in defamation and lies. Such is the Nietzschean ethic of America’s dimwitted left.

  • brd1066

    This may be so, but the real issue is that adjuncts are modern-day slaves, barely surviving, with totally uncertain future. Adjuncts pay should be comparable to full time faculty pay, and they should be given heath insurance. Obama care had intention to provide health care to all working certain number of hours per week, but smart college administrators found the way out – they reduced the number of weekly hours adjuncts can teach to avoid paying for their heath care. So, the result of Obama care – FOR ADJUNCTS – was: still no health care, and lower income, which made it harder for them to purchase health care. Adjunct situation is not sustainable. There will be less and less PhD and Masters graduates who will be willing to humiliate themselves by living below the poverty line as adjuncts after receiving their graduate degrees. They will soon come to the point where they would rather drive ice cream truck, instead of being adjuncts. Saving money on adjuncts is like of-shore outsourcing – it can work for a while, but not forever.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Yes, ALEs did reduce hours worked to avoid having to give adjuncts health coverage. But as long as you 2017 income was above 11,880 in a non-expansion state, or 16,643 in a medicaid expansion state, there was nothing preventing you from applying for and getting Obamacare during Open Enrollment Period (Nov-Jan 2017).

      PLEASE NOTE: OEP for 2018 is ONLY Nov-Dec 15, 2017.

      Do a quick check yourself to see:

      If adjuncts in these income brackets do not have affordable coverage, I do not know why.

      • brd1066

        OK, let’s say my income was $20,000 in 2017. Divided by 12 = $1,667 monthly income. Gross. My mortgage is $2,100 per month. I am not sure what these income amounts you cite mean? Who can survive with $20,000 per year? I am lucky to have a full time teaching job at a university, with full benefits. But, I was adjunct in the past, with two kids, so reduced work hours was not something I applauded to. It felt like cheating.

        • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

          Who can survive with $20k AGI a year?

          Let’s do some quick arithmetic.
          This chart shows 1/5 households have income at or below $20k, or: .2 X 325,120,000=65 million.

          • brd1066

            I know about millions Americans who live below the poverty line, and I have no clue how they can afford to pay for any health care.
            This is tragic, as adjunct pay is tragic. Nobody can survive with $20K in the area where I live. So, adjuncts work at multiple colleges, if they are lucky to find them around and get hired. But, you said it all, and I am just trying to agree with you. Adjuncts’ income dropped down because of Obama care, and that does not make them happier than they used to be.