Full-time faculty raises finally beat inflation, just barely

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For the first time since the pandemic began, the average salary has risen for full-time U.S. faculty members after adjusting for inflation, according to the American Association of University Professors’ annual pay survey. But while that’s welcome news, the raise was small—only about a half-percent uptick from fall 2022 to this past fall. 

The tiny pay bump comes after years of COVID-19–era inflation eating away at faculty compensation, including entirely consuming institutions’ significant efforts in 2022 to raise wages. But at the same time, the AAUP found that inflation still outpaced salary increases at more than half of the 870 colleges and universities that reported full-time faculty pay information for the survey. And the news is worse for part-time faculty members, whose per-course-section pay actually declined in the new survey when adjusted for inflation. 

The organization published the study’s preliminary results online Tuesday. It includes data from over 375,000 full-time and 92,000 part-time faculty members. Institutions must admit first-time undergraduate students to be included, so standalone graduate schools are excluded.

Brendan Cantwell, a professor of higher education at Michigan State University, said he thinks the increase in the average real wage “will be welcome news for faculty, but it will not fully address the concerns that many faculty have about the eroding purchasing power of their salaries.” He added, “what we’re not seeing is a real nationwide recognition of wage stagnation as a problem or a major priority for higher education.” 

The survey shows that full-time faculty members’ average salary among the participating institutions has increased to $112,000. (With some exceptions, it includes data for nonmedical instructional faculty members.) In inflation-adjusted dollars, however, that’s still far below the $120,000 average in fall 2019, before the pandemic hit. And all categories of full-time faculty members, save for full professors (who now average over $155,000), make less than the average, so it’s not a good representation of faculty pay overall. 

Another factor beyond full professors’ pay may also inflate the average salary. Glenn Colby, AAUP’s senior researcher, said the survey is “heavily biased” toward master’s and doctoral degree-granting institutions. “We have very low participation among community colleges and small liberal arts schools, which is not through lack of effort on our part,” he said. 

The survey doesn’t provide explanations from colleges on why real wages are increasing so slowly. While persistent inflation is certainly a factor, colleges are also in an economic bind, said John Cheslock, an education policies studies professor at Pennsylvania State University.

“Because universities are often reliant upon their students for revenue, they’re in a catch-22 when it comes to faculty salaries,” Cheslock said. “They want to increase the salaries for their faculty, but they need to generate the revenue to pay for that. But generating more revenue from students makes it more challenging for them to reach other goals, such as affordability.” 

But as Cantwell noted, “there’s not a lot of appetite to increase tuition,” which is now the biggest source of income even for most public institutions. Getting faculty members back to their pre-pandemic purchasing power, he said, will require either new revenue or prioritizing salaries over other institutional expenses. 

Then there’s part-time faculty members’ plight. Colby said only 221 institutions reported the pay per standard course section for “adjunct” part-time faculty members for both this year’s survey and last year’s, and the part-time data is from all of last academic year instead of this past fall. After taking those caveats into account, part-timers only averaged $3,900 for each standard course section they taught last academic year. 

That’s the same amount they made in the last annual report—and a 5.6 percent pay cut when you factor in inflation, Colby said. “The pay has been stuck at about $3,900 for several years among the institutions that provide the data,” he said. He called those wages “appalling,” and noted that most faculty members who are paid per course section don’t receive retirement or medical coverage contributions from their institutions. Overall, part-timers represented nearly half of all U.S. faculty members as of 2021, the AAUP previously reported. 

Disparities by Rank, Sex and Institution Type

Columbia University’s $308,000 average salary for full-time, full professors ranks it the highest among all participating institutions, Colby said. Among public universities, the University of California, Los Angeles’s $266,000 average salary for full professors ranks it the highest among public doctoral universities that participated. But those are far cries from what most faculty members are paid. 

The average full-time full professor now makes $155,000—still down from the $168,000 in real wages they made back in 2019. A salary chasm persists between the sexes: male full professors make $163,000, while their female peers make $142,000. The AAUP’s data isn’t broken down by race. 

The average assistant professor, who is generally someone on the tenure track but hasn’t yet earned tenure, now makes $92,000. But for men, it’s $96,000, and for women, it’s $89,000—a narrower, but still significant, pay disparity. 

Then there are the instructor and lecturer ranks. Full-time lecturers average $76,000 now, with men averaging $79,000 and women, $73,000. Instructors now average $69,000, with men getting $72,000 and women getting $67,000. 

Disparities also remain wide among public institutions, religious institutions and private, nonprofit, non-religiously affiliated institutions. For example, the average salary for full professors is now $196,000 at the former institutions, compared to $145,000 at public institutions and $137,000 at religious institutions. 

Barrett Taylor, a professor in the higher education program at the University of North Texas, spoke to another disparate impact of wage stagnation, one not easily seen in the data: the vastly different cost-of-living pressures depending on geographic area. “Real earnings have fallen quite a bit since the pandemic and you know that’s going to have asymmetric consequences for people,” Taylor said. 

What can be done to increase wages amid a financial crunch for so many universities? Cantwell noted that “wages are more consistent in unionized campuses.” But he’s not sure the public or policymakers care much about faculty wage stagnation when their priorities lean more toward student costs and outcomes. Meanwhile, he said, “having a concerted effort to improve faulty working conditions is not something that state legislators are asking institutions to do”—nor is it something families are asking institutions about when they’re considering where to send their children.

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