College Tuition Tops Faculty Pay

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This past week, colleges and universities kicked back into high gear nationwide. Along with all those students heading back to school were thousands of faculty members. While students are often eager to return to campus, for many faculty, returning to work is simply a reminder of their poor working conditions.

How bad is it? This week, the New York Times published a feature story about Peter Coles–a Harvard University economist who left Harvard to work for Airbnb. Despite the fact that Dr. Coles decided to jump ship from Harvard to Airbnb, in reality, for academics, it doesn’t really get any better than Harvard. In general, Harvard’s professors report salaries anywhere from two to three times higher than most American academics and of course, the working conditions (everything from class size to research funding) are also all much more accommodating at Harvard. If Dr. Coles thought it was bad at Harvard University, he was clearly not cut out for work in the academy.

The working conditions for faculty on most college and university campuses range from mediocre to dismal. Indeed, on many campuses a majority of faculty are part-timers; this means that on private college and university campuses, where tuition is often well above $40,000 per year, a majority of faculty make far less than a single students’ tuition fees.

How Much Do College and University Professors Make?

Today, a majority of college and university professors do not have full-time jobs. This means that a majority of PhDs work on part-time contracts (usually making a mere $3000 per course). To meet the living wage in most regions, this would require one to teach about 20 courses per year (in some cases, far more). A full-time tenured professor at a top-ranked research institution typically teaches only 4 courses per year. The bottom line is that it is impossible for most faculty to even schedule enough courses to meet or exceed the living wage for their region.

Among faculty with full-time positions, there are also problems. Many positions are no longer tenure-track, which chairsmeans that faculty are often expected to move to Arkansas or Kansas or Indiana for one year appointments and then move on to their next post in a different state. This means a high cost of living (moving expenses may or may not be reimbursed in the case of one year appointments), and it means no opportunity to build equity and retirement savings. Then, there are the lucky few who do have full-time positions.  These professors, who typically teach 4 to 5 courses per year and assume other duties (they must carry out administrative work and engage in research/publication work), earn anywhere from $55,000 (an assistant professor at a remote college) to about $110,000 on average (an associate professor at a research institution). While this many be higher than the average public school teacher’s salary, given that one must hold a PhD to even be hired, the compensation is relatively low.  An MBA hired as a consultant at McKinsey & Company or Bain & Company (or any other major consulting firm) can expect to make far more immediately after graduating than most PhDs will ever make–even at the end of their careers. The reality is that even the lucky few academics who obtain full-time positions are paid far less than most professionals in other sectors.

Would Well-Compensated Faculty Help Train a More Effective Workforce?

As suggested above, if you’re an economist (or computer scientist or engineer or physicist), teaching is a vocation but not a good economic idea. If you want to make money, it simply is not the most strategic decision. This means that there may be some truth to the saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” On the other hand, if you’re a philosopher or art historian, teaching may be among your own employment options or offer a comparable salary (e.g., an art historian working in a museum as a curator and a tenured art history professor make about the same amount of money). The real question is this: Would higher compensation attract more qualified and dynamic faculty and support more effective training, especially in STEM disciplines?

This depends on a number of factors but most notably, whether or not colleges and universities would be able to attract and retain top talent if they were less cash strapped and whether or not this top talent would make more effective teachers.  While neither of these questions is easily answered, what is clear is that as long as a majority of postsecondary faculty are part-time (often struggling to survive on salaries under $30,000 per year), students will suffer. The long-term impact on the workforce and the U.S. economy is simply yet to be seen.

September 3, 2016   Updated :February 8, 2018      

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