Liberal Education

For-Profit Universities and the Roots of Adjunctification in US Higher Education

In 1970, full-time faculty comprised more than 75 percent of the academic workforce. Today, they comprise just over 50 percent; the remaining positions are filled by adjuncts. This trend portends great uncertainty about the future of academic employment, not to mention well-justified alarm at the working environment it promotes in the present. At an average of $2,700 to $3,200 per course, adjuncts’ earnings typically fall well below those of their tenured, tenure-track, and contract counterparts.1 Questions about the long-term sustainability of an adjunct-dependent higher education system and the fairness pertaining to sharply divergent employment conditions need seriously to be addressed.

Many of these concerns are concentrated in specific subject areas. English/literature, philosophy, history, and modern languages far outpace the hard sciences, engineering, professional degree programs, and even the social sciences in their use of adjunct faculty. On its surface this uneven distribution across academic disciplines portends an acute affliction to the humanities core of the traditional liberal education model, particularly as it relates to fields with highly saturated job markets. Yet in other ways, the traditional liberal arts model of nonprofit higher education actually enjoys a modest insulation from a trend that is much more pronounced at other institutional types, and particularly the for-profit sector.

The adjunctification of the American professoriate is often attributed to a number of familiar causes: instructional budget reductions (sometimes coupled with administrative growth), the erosion of tenure and other job benefits, the failure of colleges and universities to keep pace with growing student enrollments, and even the disruptive economic effects of the “great recession” that began in 2008. Despite the apparent conventional wisdom embodied by each of these explanatory factors, growing empirical evidence actually points to the boom in for-profit higher education as the primary, though not the only, driver of the most recent phases of adjunctification. The disproportionately heavy use of adjunct faculty by for-profit institutions, combined with the rapid growth of the for-profit sector beginning in the 1990s, has led to an unprecedented expansion in the number of adjunct positions overall. And yet, despite heightened attention to the adjunctification phenomenon, we may now be witnessing signs of a modest contraction of the adjunct market in the wake of the bursting of the for-profit bubble.

Statistical trends in adjunct employment

While concerns about adjunctification in US higher education are not new, they have grown in intensity in recent years.2 In early 2015, adjunct labor activists called attention to what they deemed unfair pay and working conditions by organizing a “National Adjunct Walkout Day.” Although increased awareness of the issue has spawned new efforts to map the characteristics of the part-time academic workforce, the unavailability of accurate metrics and data sources related to adjunct employment remains a challenge for researchers. In 2012, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce commissioned the most comprehensive survey of adjunct faculty to date in an attempt to shed light on characteristics of adjunct employment.3

Not all statistics are as they seem on the surface, though, and substantial confusion often characterizes public discussion of trends associated with the reliance on adjunct faculty. For example, a number of reputable media outlets have reported that adjuncts comprise as much as 76 percent of the academic workforce—an inaccurate claim that actually represents the total percentage of “contingent” faculty, a category that also includes all faculty in untenured and nontenure-track positions, whether full or part time. Others use the terms “adjunct” and “contingent” interchangeably, failing to acknowledge that each group faces unique and, in some ways, highly divergent challenges.4 The long-term job security of those in full-time non-tenure-track positions remains a concern; however, it is dangerous for statistical reporting purposes to conflate these contingent faculty with adjunct faculty. The wage gap between the two groups is significant; the median salary of full-time contingent faculty was $47,500 in 2010, and most enjoy full-time employee benefits that are not available to adjuncts.5 The most reliable data on part-time employment suggest that adjuncts currently comprise between 40 and 50 percent of the postsecondary instructional workforce in the United States, though this figure also varies widely by the type of institution and highest level of degree granted.

Rather than a simple rise in the number of adjuncts and a corresponding decline in the number of full-time faculty, a closer look at academic employment data reveals a significantly more complex picture. Adjunct growth has been highly concentrated in the for-profit sector for the past two decades, and it has proceeded at a much slower pace in more traditional sectors of the academy. This concentration reflects a number of characteristics that are unique to for-profit higher education, including the sector’s distinctive economic situation. Part-time employment growth remains an issue for traditional nonprofit colleges and universities, though its dynamics are far less reflective of the commonly presumed pattern of “replacement” for formerly full-time faculty positions. In general, closer attentiveness to institution-specific patterns is necessary both to understand the adjunct phenomenon and to accurately diagnose its implications for the future of higher education in the United States.

For-profits and the recent roots of adjunctification

The decline in full-time positions as a percentage of instructional staffing has been ongoing since the early 1970s. As figure 1 illustrates, the most precipitous drop actually took place between 1970 and 1977. This drop in the percentage of full-time faculty is usually attributed to the rise of community colleges, which employ relatively high numbers of part-time faculty.6 The percentage of full-time faculty underwent a slow yet steady decline between 1993 and 2012, dropping from 60 to 50 percent, before rebounding slightly to just over 51 percent in 2013.

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However, this percentage comparison obscures another important trend. The total number of full-time positions has more than doubled, from 369,000 in 1970 to 791,000 today (see fig. 2). Interestingly, this growth pattern has continued uninterrupted since 1986. Moreover, it accelerated slightly after 2001 and, contrary to another common misconception, does not appear to have diminished during the financial crisis of the late 2000s. The observed decline in the percentage of full-time faculty actually derives from the fact that the number of part-time positions has expanded at a faster rate, swelling from 104,000 in 1970 to 752,000 today. This growth pattern is much less stable and has tended to come in sudden waves and with occasional reversals. While the overall number of part-time positions has essentially grown to match the number of full-time positions, there is no sign that full-time positions are on the decline numerically.

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What, then, is causing the most recent wave of adjunctification in US higher education? The single largest factor appears to be the parallel boom in for-profit higher education. The US Department of Education’s IPEDS survey has consistently shown that for-profit colleges and universities employ part-time or adjunct faculty almost exclusively. Tenure is essentially nonexistent at most of these institutions, and adjuncts comprise nearly the entirety of the for-profit instructional workforce. The most recent study on institutional lines shows that over 93 percent of for-profit faculty are hired on a part-time basis (see table 1). By contrast, adjuncts comprise only one-third of the instructional faculty at traditional four-year colleges and universities (the percentage is slightly higher at private institutions than at publics) and about two-thirds of the faculty at community colleges.

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The extreme disparity in adjunct dependence between for-profit and nonprofit higher education points to a disproportionate role in the observed adjunct boom. While for-profit metrics are more difficult to obtain, a clearly parallel expansion in the for-profit sector occurred between the 1990s and 2011. This period corresponds to several landmark events in the history of for-profit higher education. The Apollo Group, parent company of the for-profit University of Phoenix, took its stock public in 1994 and rapidly expanded its branch campuses. The Corinthian Colleges group was founded shortly thereafter in 1995. For-profit student enrollment peaked around 2010–11, followed by a precipitous decline that is still underway and includes the bankruptcy of the Corinthian system in early 2015. Direct evidence of for-profit effects can be seen in figure 3. A near-perfect correlation appears between the growth in the number of for-profit campuses and the growth in the overall number of adjuncts in the same period.

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The trend in faculty employment in for-profit institutions follows a nearly identical pattern. As shown in figure 2, approximately 470,000 part-time faculty positions were added between 1991 and the adjunct peak in 2011. (Note that this figure does not account for the approximately 22 percent of adjunct faculty who teach at two or more campuses, which makes some double-counting inevitable.) During this same period, the instructional positions at for-profit institutions alone increased by nearly 130,000 positions, almost all of them part-time. In a sharp reversal of fortunes, for-profit universities shed more than 10,000 positions between 2011 and 2013. The bankruptcy-induced closure of almost one hundred Corinthian campuses and the drop in for-profit enrollment amidst greater accreditation and financial pressures practically ensures that this pattern will continue in the near future.

Since for-profit institutions comprised no more than about 11 to 13 percent of all US higher education institutions at their peak, it is difficult to understate the disproportionate weight of their position in the adjunct realm. By comparison, the for-profit university boom was the likely driver of over a quarter of all adjunct growth in the last twenty years.

The adjunctification of the professoriate has continued in other sectors of US higher education, albeit at a slower pace. A substantial portion of this increase in the use of adjuncts may be attributable to a continuation of the growth of the community college sector that began in the 1970s. As we have seen, part-time employment rates at two-year associate’s degree–granting colleges are about twice that at traditional nonprofit four-year institutions, comprising about 65 percent of all faculty. Community colleges accounted for roughly 130,000 new faculty over the same period as the for-profit boom. While it is difficult to determine a more precise institutional distribution of the growth in adjunct faculty given the data limitations, it does appear that traditional four-year nonprofit institutions have been comparatively less susceptible to the adjunctification trend over time.

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The role of tenure and full-time status in the contingency debate

Unsurprisingly, the growth of part-time faculty employment has accompanied a decline in the overall percentage (though not the absolute number) of tenured and tenure-eligible faculty.7 As with part-time employment patterns, differences in institutional type weigh heavily on the availability of both tenure protections and tenure-eligible positions. As figure 5 illustrates, well over 90 percent of public four-year colleges and universities have tenure systems in place. In fact, the percentage of four-year publics with tenure reached an all-time high of almost 96 percent in 2013–14. Tenure systems are somewhat less common at community colleges and private four-year institutions, hovering at around 60 percent for both. By comparison, tenure systems are virtually non-existent in for-profit higher education.

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The percentages of tenured faculty within institutions that offer tenure have changed somewhat. Recall from table 1 that traditional four-year institutions employ significantly lower percentages of part-time faculty (34 percent) than do community colleges (65 percent) and for-profits (93 percent). Excluding for-profit institutions, the percentage of full-time faculty with tenure declined by about 5 percentage points across all other institutional types between 1993–94 and 2003–04 (see fig. 6). Yet since 2005–06, the percentage of full-time tenured faculty has stabilized at both public and private four-year institutions, and it has increased at community colleges. Note that figure 6 includes full-time tenured faculty only; it does not account for full-time tenure-track or tenure-ineligible full-time appointments. Yet it does show that, as a percentage of all full-time faculty, the tenured faculty has not declined significantly over the past decade, including during the recent financial crisis.

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By looking at all full-time faculty positions, as opposed to only those with tenure, a clearer trend emerges—a trend that runs counter to another conventional theory of adjunctification. A 2015 report by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education asserts that retiring full-time faculty are being replaced by new adjunct hires as a way of handling increased student enrollments.8 Though a common claim in the adjunct literature, this “replacement” theory is directly contradicted by student enrollment data. A very different pattern emerges when trends in the total number of full-time teaching positions are compared to student enrollment growth since 1970.

As figure 7 illustrates, the ratio of enrolled students to full-time faculty has remained remarkably stable at about 25 to 1, fluctuating only slightly over time. Furthermore, when data from the adjunct-dependent for-profit sector are excluded, the ratio today sits at near parity with the 1970 level. As of 2013, the total number of full-time positions has grown to 2.14 times the 1970 level. The total number of enrolled students, excluding those who attend for-profit universities, sits at 2.19 times the 1970 level. In short, the total number of full-time positions has actually kept pace with student enrollment growth.

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This pattern suggests that adjunct faculty actually serve another important role in reducing the average class size and increasing the number and diversity of courses offered. These factors can improve institutional rankings as well as marketing appeal, indicating that adjunctification is actually more of a supplementary phenomenon to a full-time growth ratio that has remained constant for forty years.

Interpreting recent data trends

In light of continued uncertainties surrounding academic employment, the expanding role of part-time faculty in the US higher education system will likely remain a subject of controversy and concern. The analysis presented here suggests that greater attentiveness to the nuances of the academic job market, including the role of institutional characteristics in employment trends, is warranted.

In particular, the most recent phase of the long-term adjunctification in US higher education requires further unpacking to account for the central role played by the for-profit higher education boom that began in the 1990s. The rise of the for-profit sector appears to have rapidly accelerated the use of adjunct faculty over a twenty-year period. By contrast, traditional four-year institutions have remained more resistant to adjunctification than the total percentages of full- and part-time faculty suggest when considered alone. Interestingly, the for-profit-driven adjunct boom mirrors other recent patterns in for-profit higher education. For example, a 2015 study by the Brookings Institution found that the for-profit sector accounted for vastly disproportionate levels of student loan defaults compared to traditional higher education.9

Two additional characteristics highlight the important role of the for-profit phenomenon in the adjunctification of US higher education. First, part-time instructors at for-profit institutions are paid significantly less than their counterparts in traditional higher education institutions. With a median rate of only $1,560 per class, for-profits pay just over half the going adjunct rate at most nonprofit colleges and universities.10 This sizable salary differential suggests that the for-profit effect on the adjunct market is also greatly exacerbating the broader set of grievances associated with adjunct compensation.

Second, we are presently witnessing the bursting of the for-profit bubble, following its peak around 2010–11. Backlash against student loan practices and a push for stricter accreditation standards have taken a toll on the for-profit education industry, leading to a decline in enrollment and, in cases such as Corinthian, financial insolvency. If they continue, the current troubles of for-profit higher education likely portend a partial reversal of the adjunctification trends. Indeed, the latest statistics suggest that such a reversal may be underway already, as the percentage of part-time faculty (fig. 1), the total number of part-time faculty (fig. 2), and the for-profit inclusive student-to-full-time faculty ratio (fig. 7) all decreased in 2013, coinciding with the for-profit contraction (figs. 3 and 4).

Related patterns in full-time academic employment, including full-time contingent faculty, indicate steady, uninterrupted growth. While this pattern has accompanied an erosion of tenured faculty as a percentage of all full-time faculty over the past forty years, data from the last decade suggest that tenure has stabilized somewhat—particularly if one excludes the for-profit sector, where tenure is practically non-existent.

Given that full-time positions continue to expand in absolute numbers, recent data trends point to a larger issue with the supply of academic labor. The number of job applicants continues to exceed the number of available full-time positions, even as the total number of full-time positions in many fields has more than doubled since 1970. In part, this labor supply issue stems from an ongoing overproduction of PhDs, although a closer look at the current adjunct sector also reveals that even PhD holders are in a distinct minority among currently employed adjuncts (see table 2).

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The growth in adjunct positions reflects the academy’s absorption of both a glut of new PhDs and an influx of nonterminal-degree-holding applicants for part-time instructional positions. This latter group was likely a direct beneficiary of the for-profit-induced adjunct boom that occurred between 1991 and 2011 even as the positions it offered were non-ideal. In an already saturated academic job market, we should expect to see a significant employment advantage for candidates with a PhD over those who hold only a master’s degree or equivalent.11 A PhD-driven credentialing expectation will likely function as the most visible barrier to upward job mobility among adjuncts who lack terminal degrees, though it is also likely to exert downward pressures within the adjunct market as the for-profit contraction plays out and competition increases for a smaller number of adjunct positions.12

Ironically, the recent surge of adjunct awareness and accompanying unionization efforts may have less to do with a “boiling point” effect, premised on the overall percentage growth over the past four decades, than it does with the for-profit-induced adjunct market contraction that has occurred over the past four years. Adjuncts who lack terminal degrees and who teach at less-prestigious institutions will likely be the most vulnerable—not for want of upward mobility to full-time positions, though that credentialing barrier still exists, but for want of additional adjuncting work at their previously existing levels.

A more pressing and simultaneous concern for the liberal arts model may also derive from the rapid growth of graduate degree output in the humanities. While adjunct growth is significantly more subdued in not-for-profit four-year colleges, adjunct use may still be a common feature of certain disciplines more than others. As previously noted, English departments employ a disproportionately large number of adjuncts even compared to other humanities disciplines. Over 16 percent of the respondents to a 2012 adjunct survey came from English/Literature. History is a distant second at 6.6 percent, followed by 5.3 percent in other modern languages and 4.8 percent in philosophy and religion.13 It may be no accident that these fields are also among the largest advanced-degree producers in the humanities.14 To the extent that many afflicted subjects form a core component of a well-rounded liberal education curriculum, future adjunct alleviation strategies would benefit from a closer examination of why PhD production in certain fields consistently outpaces full-time faculty job growth.

Adjunct trends illustrate an important dynamic of academic employment at a time of both growth and uncertainty. Yet it is in the nuances of these trends that a clearer picture of the employment market begins to emerge. There is significant evidence that a number of seemingly intuitive explanations for adjunctification—college and university budget cuts; the ongoing erosion of tenure, both perceived and actual; and fallout from specific events, such as the recent financial crisis—are, in fact, less determinative of recent anxieties than are developments in the largely overlooked for-profit sector. Once the uniquely distortive effects of employment patterns in the for-profit sector have been taken into account, the adjunct phenomenon begins to reflect a comparatively gradual pattern with conventional roots in the high supply of faculty applicants for a growing, yet still limited, number of full-time positions.

Notes

1. Coalition on the Academic Workforce, A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members: A Summary of Findings on Part-Time Faculty Respondents to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce Survey of Contingent Faculty Members and Instructors (Coalition on the Academic Workforce, 2012), 2.

2. See James Stenerson, Loren Blanchard, Michael Fassiotto, Mark Hernandez, and Ann Muth, “The Role of Adjuncts in the Professoriate,” Peer Review 10, no. 3 (2010): 23–26. A broader investigation into the causes and consequences of the trend toward non-tenured faculty, both part time and full time, can be found in Adrianna Kezar and Sean Gehrke, “Why Are We Hiring So Many Non-Tenure-Track Faculty?,” Liberal Education 100, no. 1 (2014): 44–51.

3. See Coalition on the Academic Workforce, Portrait.

4. For examples, see Kwame Anthony Appiah, “What’s the Point of College?,” New York Times Magazine, September 8, 2015; Claudio Sanchez, “Part-Time Professors Demand Higher Pay; Will Colleges Listen?,” National Public Radio, February 3, 2014,
http://www.npr.org/2014/02/03/268427156/part-time-professors-demand-high... Joseph Fruscione, “When a College Contracts Adjunctivitis, It’s the Students Who Lose,” Making Sen$e (blog), PBS NewsHour, July 25, 2014, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/when-a-college-contracts-adjunc....

5. John W. Curtis and Saranna Thornton, “Here’s the News: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2012–13,” Academe 99, no. 2 (2013): 10.

6. For an extended discussion of distinctive adjunct issues facing community colleges, see Chad Christensen,
“The Employment of Part-Time Faculty at Community Colleges,” New Directions for Higher Education 143 (2008): 29–36; David Brewster, “The Use of Part-Time Faculty in the Community College,” Inquiry: The Journal of Virginia’s Community Colleges 5, no. 1 (2000): 66–76.

7. See Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey, “The Changing Academic Workforce,” Trusteeship 21, no. 3 (2013), http://agb.org/trusteeship/2013/5/changing-academic-workforce.

8. “Back to School in Higher Ed: Who Needs Faculty?” (working paper, Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, 2015), http://futureofhighered.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/CFHE-Paper-Sept-2....

9. Adam Looney and Constantine Yannelis, “A Crisis in Student Loans? How Changes in the Characteristics of Borrowers and in the Institutions They Attended Contributed to Rising Loan Defaults” (Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Brookings Institution, 2015), http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/projects/bpea/fall-2015_embargoed/confe....

10. Coalition on the Academic Workforce, Portrait, 33, table 22.

11. See Daniel Grant, “For Artists, MFA or PhD?,” Inside Higher Ed, May 24, 2013, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2013/05/24/phd-challenges-mfa-requ.... Changing expectations around the MFA degree in artistic disciplines are illustrative. Increased competition for academic jobs has led to a growth in fine arts PhDs in recent years.

12. See Paul Fain, “Digital Pink Slips,” Inside Higher Ed, January 29, 2013, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/29/profit-woes-means-less-wo....

13. Coalition on the Academic Workforce, Portrait, 21, table 6.

14. See Humanities Indicators, “Number of Master’s Degree Completions in the Humanities, by Discipline,” http://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatorDoc.aspx?i=9.

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.


Phillip W. Magness is academic program director at the Institute for Humane Studies and adjunct professor of public policy at George Mason University.

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