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Trade-offs of Increasing Contingent Faculty
22 Feb 2017
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by Deanna Hill, Steven Hurlburt

U.S. colleges and universities are increasingly hiring contingent faculty—full- and part-time faculty who work on contract. They are not eligible for the guaranteed career-long appointments of tenure or the institutional commitment that comes with it.

While colleges and universities have long said that using contingent faculty saves them money, two studies by the Delta Cost Project at AIR find that the strategy has not translated into the large overall savings that were expected and may have implications for students most at risk of not completing their degrees. 

Contingent Faculty By the Numbers

It seems logical that the use of contingent faculty would result in cost savings.

First, contingent faculty on average are paid less than their tenured or tenure-track colleagues. According to the American Association of University Professors’ Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession 2012-13, established professors on average earn between $60,000 and $100,000 a year. Full-time contingent faculty average $47,500 and part-time or adjunct faculty earn an average of $2,700 per course. For a full course load, that amounts to about $21,000 not including benefits.

Second, hiring contingent faculty gives schools more staffing flexibility. Tenured faculty are protected from being fired except for cause or in extraordinary circumstances. But colleges and universities can choose not to hire or renew the contracts of contingent faculty in response to considerations like student enrollment and course registration patterns.

Third, contingent faculty typically enjoy fewer benefits and part-time contingent faculty often lack benefits altogether.

As you might expect, between 2003 and 2013, colleges and universities that shifted more aggressively to part-time contingent faculty did see declines in total compensation (salary and benefits) for faculty. These drops ranged from 9 percent at public four-year institutions to 25 percent at private four-year institutions. However, increased reliance on part-time contingent faculty did not translate into the same level of savings of total compensation (salary and benefits) for all employees. 

Where did the savings go?

  • At public four-year institutions that made large shifts to part-time contingent faculty, savings appeared to be shifted to increased expenditures on administration and maintenance.
  • At private four-year institutions with large shifts to part-time contingent faculty, total compensation costs per FTE employee declined but at a slower rate than declines in instructional compensation per FTE faculty. While not shifted, the savings were offset by non-faculty costs—in particular costs related to benefits for all employees.  
  • At community colleges, instructional costs declined but no shifting occurred since the institutions did not increase spending in other areas.   

Looking beyond the money, the studies also reveal that colleges and universities with the highest shares of part-time and low-income students—students most at-risk of not completing their degrees—employ the highest shares of contingent faculty. This was especially true among private four-year institutions and community colleges.

Among private four-year colleges and universities, those with the largest shares of part-time students (65 percent or greater) reported the highest concentrations of contingent faculty (89 percent). 

Private institutions with moderate shares of part-time students (between 35 and 65 percent) had 80 percent contingent faculty. And private institutions with the lowest share of part-time students (below 35 percent) had 61 percent contingent faculty.

Likewise, private four-year institutions with the largest shares of Pell Grant recipients or low income students also reported higher concentrations of contingent faculty (81percent). Private institutions with moderate concentrations of Pell Grant recipients had 77 percent contingent faculty. And private institutions with the lowest concentrations had 59 percent.   

The significance of this pattern is unknown, in part because research on instructor quality is limited. Some studies find a relationship between the presence of contingent faculty and negative outcomes such as reduced graduation rates, reduced persistence rates, and grade inflation. Researchers explain these findings by highlighting that contingent faculty are less likely to have doctorates and more likely to be balancing other time commitments.

Other studies indicate a relationship between the presence of contingent faculty and positive outcomes such as increased student interest in a subject, subsequent course-taking in that subject, and enhanced learning experiences. Researchers explain these findings by highlighting the greater likelihood that contingent faculty have current or past professional experience in the field and can spend more time on teaching than tenure-track colleagues who are expected to focus on research.

Bottom line: While institutions may be saving by hiring more contingent faculty, those savings are often offset by increased spending in areas such as administration, maintenance, and benefits. Moreover, these hiring practices have resulted in the largest shares of contingent faculty teaching the largest shares of students at risk of non-completion.

It’s now up to college leaders and policymakers to consider the financial (and other potential) trade-offs of their institutional hiring practices. Even where short-term cost savings are achieved, there may be unintended long-term consequences.


See more in our infographic series: The Non-Tenured Majority.


Deanna Hill is a principal technical assistance consultant at AIR. She has been a full-time contingent faculty member with benefits.

Steve Hurlburt is a senior researcher and director of the Delta Cost Project at AIR.

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