DMI Blog

Craig Smith

The Changing FACE of the Academy: The Causes

This is the first in a series of posts regarding what is happening to the academic staffing system in U.S. colleges and universities.

Recently, Congress passed the long-overdue College Cost Reduction and Access Act, finally beginning the process of reinvesting in our federal financial aid system and putting a stop to the practice of using our student loan program to subsidize private lenders. This is truly an important turnaround for students and their families. However, it is only a piece of what needs to be done to reinvest in our colleges and universities.

During the 20th century, the United States developed one of the finest and most diverse higher education systems in the world. This didn't happen by accident. Government and academic leaders, backed by the general public, committed themselves to policies that made for excellent education, and backed those policies with a strong financial commitment. That investment was in two areas: (1) creating and nurturing a wide array of colleges and universities to meet the varied needs of students, and (2) developing and supporting a top-notch faculty, since policymakers and administrators recognized that great teachers and researchers are the heart of an educational program.

These policies served higher education well. We have good reason to be proud of our colleges and universities. Enrollments continue to grow, including foreign students who consistently seek their advanced education in the United States. Today, however, American leadership in higher education is in jeopardy because these policies are being seriously eroded as investment in higher education is squeezed out by other priorities.

In 2005, state and local support per full-time college student reached a 25-year low in inflation-adjusted terms. In 2006, support grew slightly for the first time since 2001. With the cuts in state aid, colleges and universities tried to cover costs in two ways: generate alternative revenue streams and cut costs. "Alternative revenue streams" has primarily meant skyrocketing costs for students and their families.

But anyone thinking about college knows (or at least senses) that the cost of higher education is not only rising, but may become a barrier to even attending college. What most of the general public doesn't know is that, while college costs have been soaring, another problem has been slowly and silently building. Over the last 25 years, colleges and universities have sought to save money by cutting costs (read "labor costs") and that has translated into a drastic reduction in the full-time faculty workforce.

In 1960, 75 percent of faculty members were full-time. Here is what the higher education instructional workforce looks like today, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Percentage Distribution of Higher Education Instructional Workforce (2005)

Full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty 28%
Full-time but not tenure-eligible faculty 15%
Part-time/adjunct faculty 36%
Graduate employees 21%

This represents a radical reconfiguration of how we are staffing college and university classrooms. Less than half of the workforce is full-time, and less than one-third is tenured or tenure-eligible. This is not just a change in job titles, but rather a shift in the attitude about the value of faculty. For instance, part-time and adjunct faculty often make scandalously low salaries, with some making less than $200 a week for teaching a semester-long college course—and, of course, they receive no healthcare or other benefits. Part-time/adjunct faculty and graduate employees are often being asked to teach without reasonable orientation to a department and its curriculum, without an office or any space to meet with students outside of the classroom, and without administrative support to ensure they are connected to the institution and the students. Still, they will be expected to deliver a rich, high-quality education to their students (which most will do despite their employment circumstances). In short, we have moved from a professionally treated workforce with well-earned job protections to a predominantly contingent workforce that is all too often paid exploitive wages and provided with little or no professional support.

Should we care? We at the American Federation of Teachers believe we all should be extremely concerned. We will look at the question of why in Part II of this series. Until then, we invite you to join us in our ongoing discussion about these issues.

Craig Smith: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 10:41 AM, Sep 17, 2007 in Education | Labor
Permalink | Email to Friend