The Rise of Adjunct Faculty

Newer reports reveal that roughly seventy-five percent of college classroom instructors are off the tenure track. The trend is widespread and throughout every level of higher education. Elite schools like Harvard University, Stanford, and Yale also rely on adjuncts and other non-tenured professors to fill certain teaching positions.

Why the shift? Let’s explore the reasons.

How the Higher Ed System Changed So Fast

The move toward hiring more part-time and non-tenure-track instructors began about 50 years ago. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) reported that in 1969, roughly 78 percent of faculty members at colleges and universities in the U.S. held tenure or tenure-track positions. Non-tenure track or adjunct roles accounted for about 22 percent. Back then, most students were educated by tenured or tenure-track professors. Today, many students take a class from a tenured professor just once a semester or only in upper-level courses.

What caused this change? The first influencing factor has been the steady increase in college enrollment. Before WWII, a college education was considered a privilege reserved for the wealthy. Eight million military veterans enrolled in college following the GI Bill of Rights passing. This made getting a college education more affordable and more attainable for a larger group of people. As a result, attendance at colleges and universities grew significantly. Additionally, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, many colleges and universities partnered with federal programs to offer student grants and financial aid.

In the mid-1970s, our U.S. economy faltered, signaling the end of a post-WWII economic boom. Events like the Vietnam War, globalization, the oil crisis, and the stock market crash hurled the U.S. into the 1973-1975 recession. In academia, college tuition rates and fees rose faster than the inflation rate. Private loans began to replace federal grants as the primary source of financial aid for students from middle-class and lower-class backgrounds. As a result, colleges and universities started losing state funding. To cut costs, schools decided to swap out tenured and full-time teaching jobs for a cheaper option: adjunct and part-time professors.

Why College is More Expensive Now, and the Cost to Professors

Today, getting a degree isn’t cheap. There are a few theories as to why higher education is so expensive. Lack of state funding, the availability of student loans, shrinking endowments, the increase in pay for executive and administrative positions, the high cost of new buildings and facility upgrades, and luxury amenities intended to attract prospective students and their parents all contribute to the soaring price of higher ed.

Reducing the number of tenure-track and full-time professor positions has helped colleges and universities trim their budgets. Currently, many colleges and universities rely on adjuncts and part-time professors. What was once a rarity — hiring a professor to teach only a few classes — has become the rule, not the exception.

The Adjunct Model is Here to Stay

Much of the news surrounding the uptick in adjunct faculty is negative and pessimistic. Contingent professors are asking for better pay, benefits, and voting rights. Colleges and universities are reducing staff and freezing salaries.

Adjuncts are best served by refocusing on the positive. The pursuit of higher education is expanding and shedding its age boundaries. Those seeking secondary careers go back to school to enhance their skill sets. The multitude of approaches to delivering education, both online and in-person, allows for greater flexibility for the student and the professor.

Change is the only constant. Agility is the only answer. A successful adjunct is now poised to create a hybrid career that best suits the adjunct’s interests. Now is the time for agency greater self-determination.