the real story behind the adjunct labor market in academia

For many years, I believed a common story about part-time laborers in the university system. I believed that administrators had slowly cut back on full time tenure track jobs and replaced them with an army of low paid part timers.Tenure was under attack and it will soon disappear. That story isn’t right.

Writing in Liberal Education, the academic journal of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, Phil Magness argues that there is no evidence of a cut back in tenure track lines and that adjunctification is mainly about the growth of for-profit colleges. Magness uses data from the Digest of Education Statistics to make the following arguments:

  • Aside from graduate students, there are three types of academic laborers: tenure track faculty, full time contingent faculty, and part time contingent faculty. Most people lump the part-timers and full-timers together but they are very different. Full timers make a lot more money, they have job stability, and benefits. When people think of the term “low paid adjunct,” what they mean is part-time contingent laborers.
  • It is actually true that the % of faculty who are full timers of any type has dropped from 80% to about 50% (Figure 1) but…
  • Part timers are not the majority of laborers in most types of institutions, with two massive exceptions: 2 year institutions (65%) and for-profits (93%). That is not a mistake, almost all for-profit teaching staff are part timers. (Table 1)
  • There has been a tremendous increase in the number of for-profit colleges.
  • The ratio of full time faculty (tenured and permanent lecturers) to students has not decreased over time. It’s been about 25 to 1 for about 40 years. (Figure 7)
  • Tenure is relatively stable. The proportion of schools by category that award tenure to their faculty changes moderately over time. For example, 90% of public 4-year schools award tenure as do about 60% of privates and junior colleges. These numbers fluctuate a little over time. For-profits have tenure systems less than 10% of the time and that number is decreasing. (Figures 5 and 6)
  • Being an adjunct is mainly about having an MA degree (40%). Only 30% have completed the PhD. (Table 2). In unpublished work, Magness also notes that adjuncts are disproportionately concentrated in the language arts and other humanities.

To put it bluntly, the “tenure is under attack” story is completely wrong. There is literally no evidence to support it. Instead, adjunctification is about two processes. First, for-profit colleges have expanded greatly and they need armies of cheap labor. Second, cheap labor is supplied by humanities scholars with MA degrees and, to a lesser extent, doctoral degrees. Otherwise, there is a very stable core of full time lecturers and tenure track faculty. This is true across time and most institutional types. Thus, adjunctification is about the over-production of humanities graduate degrees driving down labor costs in for-profit colleges. Savor the irony.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 27, 2016 at 12:01 am

10 Responses

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  1. Wisconsin demonstrates that tenure is under attack – though not in quite the way you mean. At Michigan, the proportion of classroom hours staffed by TT faculty has fallen (I think) but in line with your story they have been covered by a mix of grad students and full-time, unionized lecturers. I would love to see more comparative data at that level of granularity- not just institutions giving tenure but relative proportion of TT to full time to part time teaching.


    Dan Hirschman

    June 27, 2016 at 5:46 am

  2. @Dan: Your comment brings up two issues,

    1. Is tenure actually under attack? Maybe, but it has nothing to do with the growth in adjuncts because those employees are mainly in institutions that never had tenure to start with (for profits) or that never had many tenured faculty to start with (2 yr colleges). Further, the explosion in adjuncts did not happen because tenured lines were cut but because the for-profits quickly multiplied in number.

    The issue in Wisconsin is actually more complex than it appears. I am certain that the Governor of Wisconsin has his sights set on the “tenured radicals” of Madison, but the rule changes don’t exactly make it easy to over turn the tenure system. What the rule changes do is bring Wisconsin’s tenure system in line with those of other states that write tenure into higher ed policy, not state law. Tenure exists, but the governance is different. In a few states (Wyoming, NC, CO), we’ve seen some faculty dismissed but not many. Also, as Magness notes, we have NOT seen a decline in the % of schools offering tenured slots or the raw number of TT slots, except for profits, which have been eliminating tenure. Thus. tenure, so far, appears more robust than the rhetoric admits (which is good, in my view).

    2. No one denies the shrinking % of TT lines. The major point of the paper is that there is a core of TT lines that has remained stable and new lines are taken by full time lecturers. It’s not an absolute shrinking of the TT, it’s a relative effect. This isn’t in Magness’ paper, but I suspect that these full time lecturers are mainly in professional schools. The core arts and sciences have a few lecturers (my program has one) but we see tons in areas like public policy and law. Maybe we’d see more in areas like the performing and visual arts.

    I suggest you look at some old Michigan catalogs and estimate the TT/student ratio for sociology. You’ll see some stability. Then look at other units like the Ford Policy School or the Law School. There, I wager, you’d see more and more lecturers over time.

    Liked by 1 person


    June 27, 2016 at 11:46 am

  3. I’d be happy to see the data, but my general sense is that while there are plenty of adjunct faculty in law schools (and for very good pedagogical and curricular reasons that aren’t necessarily budget-related), that story has not been about replacing TT faculty, which have grown immensely over the years and only been cut back since 2008. I can’t speak to other professional schools.


    Paul Horwitz

    June 27, 2016 at 3:02 pm

  4. Fabio, I think you draw conclusions about what we “know” about the “tenure under attack” theory that are too strong given the data presented in the piece. Missing from it are the two views I was most expecting to see and which would answer the question most directly: 1) the percentage of all faculty w/ tenure at 4-year, NFP, institutions, and; 2) the ratio of students to tenured faculty at U.S. colleges and universities. Basically what I want is figures 6 & 7 but with all faculty, not just restricted to full time faculty.

    There are both interesting and important insights in the piece. I’ll grant, momentarily, one of his primary points that it’s better to reserve “adjunct” for part time faculty to distinguish them from their contingent but full time counterparts. And, yes, on that score, adjunctification looks different than maybe we thought. But you’re also making points about tenure in the OP. But, in doing so I think you’re drawing on analyses that center on full time faculty and which elide the differences in tenured and non-tenured variants within that category. You are calling incorrect the traditional view of adjunctification — but to the degree that view is primarily about tenure, i.e., is anti-contingency — I don’t think you’re justified, based on these data, in making that claim.



    June 27, 2016 at 3:33 pm

  5. MDH – Part of the issue is we simply don’t have ideal statistics on adjuncting that go back far enough for a year-to-year analysis. That said, figure 6 actually tells us more about the question you ask than it might appear. Consider:

    1. We know for a fact that the absolute number of full time faculty (including both TT and contingent, which is unfortunately the way the USDept of Ed tracks it) shows a consistent year-to-year rise for almost as long as it has been recorded. That means the absolute #s of full time faculty are growing at a very stable rate.

    2. We know the %’s of tenure *among* full time faculty from figure 6. It fluctuated a bit historically, but it has also been stable since the early 2000s.

    If the growth rate of full time faculty is constant as per #1, and the % of tenured positions among full time faculty is stable as per #2, then it follows that tenure is not eroding to adjuncts. #2 shows that it’s keeping pace with the growth exhibited in #1.

    Of course adjunct numbers have, until very recently, grown at a much faster pace…but that’s the other point I make in the article. The majority of that growth is attributable to institution-type rather than anything about the tenure system. It is disproportionately shaped by the for-profit higher ed explosion, followed by growth of the community college system.

    One other point: if you re-did figure 7 and took the student ratio to all faculty as opposed to only full time faculty, you would find that it drops continuously over time from about 18:1 in 1970 to about 13:1 at the present. This certainly shows the results of the for-profit boom being included in the overall ratio, but it also indicates that the use of adjunct instructors is largely a supplemental feature rather than a replacement feature. In other words, schools hire adjuncts to offer more class sections and reduce the average classroom sizes from where they were historically when the academy employed fewer adjuncts on the whole.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Phil, thanks for a thoughtful reply. Let me reiterate that I would recommend the article to colleagues and that I feel I’ve a richer, more accurate, understanding of these dynamics for it. My criticisms, mild as they are, had more to do with Fabio’s conclusions (Not even. With some valence-level implications of them.) and less to do with the analyses in the piece which, I fully acknowledge, must be addressed to questions constrained by the limitations of the available data.

    Without paging through the Digest, I’d also tried to “back out” the numbers from the graphs, mainly Figure 2. In text you’d focused on a critical period from 1991 to 2011. Within 10,000 or so, during that period, part-time faculty increased by roughly 450k. Of that, roughly 120k (93% of 130k) went to for-profits, leaving 330k. Of that, 85k (65% of 130k) went to 2-year institutions. That leaves roughly 245k part timers ending up at 4-year schools.

    Looking at full-time faculty, they increased by 300k during that period. Of that, roughly 10k went to for-profits and 45k to 2-years leaving about 245 to the 4-years. Again, all quite back of the envelope and no doubt the percentages changed over time.

    But basically the same totals is the point. Over a 20-year period, even restricted to 4-year schools, a newly added faculty member was as likely to be full- as part-time. Moreover, some unknown and clinically significant proportion of the full-timers will not be tenure-track; they will be contingent. Now, I think part of this story is that the increase in part-timers during that period was unsustainable /across all school types/. But is the 1-to-1 ratio within the 4-years necessarily unsustainable? More pointedly, what dynamics are people looking at that makes them think that’ll stop, or reverse to something more normatively desirable, in the near-to-medium term future? After decades of 1-1 additions to faculty, the ratio of existing faculty within 4-year schools has reached 2-1 FT to PT. Even closer to parity if we’re talking about tenure-track to contingent. I guess time will tell where the flow stops diluting the stock. It seems axiomatic to me that you can’t maintain 2-1 without at least 2-1 hiring.

    I think Fabio has told a narrow version of the “tenure is under attack” story with an implied directionality to how people who march under that banner can be wrong. I’m suggesting, strongly now, that it’s not the case that they’re right only if there’s evidence that schools cut back on tenure-track and replace with part-timers. Fine, there’s not (yet) good evidence of that. They can, however, also be right if a particular set of schools, or higher ed more generally, simply fails to maintain either of 1) the share of all faculty with security of employment or 2) the ratio of faculty with security of employment to students. The first speaks to whatever benefits of tenure are supposed to flow to the individuals that have it. The second speaks to whatever benefits of tenure are supposed to flow to society via students. In this narrative, the harms of “fail to expand” are virtually identical to “cut and replace.” And since there’s nothing in the data you present to suggest that schools have done anything but fail to maintain, let alone expand, both 1 & 2, I strenuously object to his most far-reaching conclusions.



    June 27, 2016 at 11:26 pm

  7. MDH –

    Data quality is unfortunately an issue, even with the relatively comprehensive USDOE surveys. Two complications I’d caution you to pay attention to though:

    1. The adjunct totals almost certainly have a sizable amount of double-counting. IPEDS gets its data from self-reporting, so adjuncts who teach at 2 or more schools do tend to get double counted. We have no precise way of knowing how many fit into this group, but a rough estimate (based on adjunct surveys of persons who teach at two or more campuses) suggests that the total adjunct numbers are inflated by perhaps as much as 20%.

    2. The key number to watch at the 4-year level is actually the student-to-full-time ratio. It has predicted new full time hires with remarkable consistency for over 40 years, hovering in the neighborhood of 25:1. While adjuncts have also increased at 4-year institutions, they have grown at nowhere near the pace of for-profits and community colleges. They are also clearly *not* replacing full time faculty as the 25:1 ration shows.

    What that tells us is that adjuncts are likely serving a very different role at 4-years than at for-profits & 2 years, where they are a solid majority of (and in some cases the entirety of) the faculty workforce. At 4-years, adjuncts are probably being brought on as supplemental instructors. The reason for doing this is to offer more flexible class sections and to reduce the average # of students per class, which counts in a university’s favor for rankings etc.

    We can also tell that this is the case because we have a fair bit of historical data on full timer teaching loads. They’ve hovered pretty consistently at around a 4-3 to 3-3 at non-research university 4 year institutions, and – expectedly – a little less (usually 2-2 neighborhood) at research universities. Adjuncts are being brought in on top of that stable teaching core to expand the course offerings – which is actually not an intrinsically bad trend either, as it probably improves the experience of students and there’s no evidence that it has come at the expense of faculty hires relative to historic levels and existing student demand.


  8. I’d also add (and it’s hinted at in the original article) that the adjunct market has actually been *contracting* since 2011, despite all the rhetoric otherwise. The biggest reason is the for-profit bubble burst. But all the evidence points to a decline in adjunct hiring over the last ~5 years, meaning the adjunct-to-full time hiring parity actually hasn’t stayed at or near parity.

    Interestingly enough, what this also likely means is a squeeze on the lower end of the adjunct workforce from where it was at its 2011 peak. There are fewer adjunct jobs today than in 2011, but likely a comparable number of adjunct job seekers competing for them. This has meant the least qualified adjuncts – the people who have weaker credentials, only have MAs, etc. – are likely having a harder time maintaining even their 2011 levels of adjunct work. Now guess which adjuncts are suddenly expending vast amounts of time and effort on “activist” causes to establish job protection measures for adjunct positions? The bottom end of the adjunct workforce – the ones who are having trouble finding adjunct work precisely because adjunct opportunities are shrinking.


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