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Blue Model Blues
Adjuncts Rising, Rising, Rising

Preston Cooper of Economics 21 points us to a new NBER paper that confirms and quantifies in detail what higher education watchers have been saying for some time: Colleges can’t afford to hire enough full-time faculty to educate their growing student populations, and are increasingly turning to low paid, disposable adjuncts to make up for it. From the abstract:

The share of part-time faculty among total faculty has continued to grow over the last two decades, while the share of full-time lecturers and instructors has been relatively stable. Meanwhile, the share of non-tenure track faculty among faculty with professorial ranks has been growing. Dynamic panel data models suggest that employment levels of different types of faculty respond to a variety of economic and institutional factors. Colleges and universities have increasingly employed faculty whose salaries and benefits are relatively inexpensive; the slowly deteriorating financial situations at most colleges and universities have led to an increasing reliance on a contingent academic workforce.

Cooper suggests one reason for the adjunct explosion is the free-flowing federal student loan spigot, which is pushing more students into the university system and therefore incentivizing schools to increase their teaching capacity at the lowest possible cost. We would also add that the tenure-for-life model demanded by the professors’ guild probably limits the ability of universities to move resources around and slows down turnover among the professoriate. The federal monopoly on college accreditation props up this system by stifling competition, even as the proliferation of obscure fields of study (especially in the social sciences) creates a constant supply of newly minted PhD’s desperate for academic jobs.

The ultimate result of all of this is inequality and exploitation: Administrator salaries go up, adjuncts face increasingly alarming economic insecurity, and the quality of education at lower-tier schools continues to be undermined even as the top colleges have access to almost unlimited resources. In other words, even the most leftwing institutions in the country can’t afford to put egalitarian, blue-model ideals into practice. Like all decaying blue institutions, the university still serves insiders (college presidents, professors with tenure, students at Yale) quite well, even as outsiders (adjunct faculty, students who took out loans to go to lower-tiered schools) struggle.

What’s causing this higher education crisis is not evil conservatives. It’s the fact that the blue model of higher education, complete with regulation, subsidies, and professional guilds, is simply no longer workable or affordable. That’s one reason we are seeing free college proposals and other wheezes to get more federal money into the system. Needless to say, this is the wrong approach. Higher education needs to be rethought and reorganized for the twenty-first century. Doubling down on the system we set up in the post-World War II period will expose new problems and make the existing system even worse.

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  • Andrew Allison

    “Cooper suggests one reason for the adjunct explosion is the free-flowing federal student loan spigot, which is pushing more students into the university system and therefore incentivizing schools to increase their teaching capacity at the lowest possible cost.” The solution is obvious: make college free [sarc].

    • Jim__L

      The solution is even more obvious than that — hire more administrators to make sure those new students’ tuition money is being spent carefully!

      • JR

        Then hire a second set of administrators to make sure first administrators are sufficiently diverse.

        • Winston Smith

          And a third set of administrators to make sure the second administrators are properly ethnically diverse and ideologically pure.

          … next ? …

  • Pait

    Although the problems with hiring adjuncts are well-known, I must point out that the argument contains a non-sequitur. More resources, in this case from government-guaranteed student loans, tend to make organizations willing to pay more to their employees, in order to better compete for income.

    • ljgude

      While it might appear a non sequitur what happens is that organizations do not behave this way by raising the pay of low level employees like adjunct faculty when they get extra money. The less you can get away with paying them the more there is for those with the power to claim it – ie tenured faculty and administrators. Adjuncts are offered a low fee on an individual basis – they have no bargaining power. They are essentially viewed as interchangeable pieceworkers to be hired as needed and let go when not needed.

      • Pait

        That organizations try to pay as little as possible is a general fact under a free market system. That adjuncts have little power is the reason why they try to improve their bargaining situation by negotiating collectively, for example forming unions.

        Nevertheless, salaries tend to increase when more money is available. It is a tenet of faith for all who believe in markets. It is also in the university’s self interest to pay more, even to the lowliest, because that makes them better able to serve their customers and attract students.

        A non sequitur it is.

        • ljgude

          I honestly don’t see the non sequitur. Wages tend to rise when there is more money available only if there is a scarcity in the supply. That is the problem here. There is a huge supply of people with advanced degrees trying to get work teaching in higher education who will accept adjunct positions. I think it follows as the night the day that as long as there is an oversupply in a free market system organizations are in a position to keep wages low. That is why it is called the law of supply and demand – there is a causal connection between the two factors. Perhaps you are seeing the non sequitur somewhere else – you were taking exception to something in WRM’s argument which you did not precisely identify. Perhaps I am missing your point.

          • Pait

            No, I am making precisely the point you referred to. If there is more money available, wages will rise, at any given level of supply. Th fact that there is ample supply means that the wages are low – you are definitely correct here – but still they would be even lower if the demand were smaller.

            Now perhaps the article would want to argue that federal student loans to undergraduate education increases the supply of professors, more than the number of students. That would be a complex argument to make, but perhaps it has some truth to it. It is not the argument in the post, which is, I quote: “…federal student loan […] push] more students into the university system and therefore incentivizing schools to increase their teaching capacity at the lowest possible cost”. Namely, loans increase demands for teachers and therefore lower teacher salaries, a non-sequitur indeed, whatever the other merits of the paper in question.

          • Tom

            Not a non-sequitur at all, actually, but if you don’t see the logic I can’t help you.

          • Pait

            This is not an argument. It is a contradiction. By now I have become familiar with your style of thinking. Perhaps I should recommend a session at the “Argument Clinic From Monty Python’s Flying Circus”.

          • Tom

            You have had the logic explained to you repeatedly on this page. But, even before then, I realized that you did not see the argument presented–you saw the argument you wanted to see. Why waste my time?

          • Pait

            Probably because you have too much time in your hands, and very few useful things to do.

          • Tom

            A charge I could level at you with equal ease.

          • Pait

            I plead guilty as charged.

          • Winston Smith

            “If there is more money available, wages will rise, at any given level of supply.”

            Do you have a cite for real world reach search that proves your assumption?

            It MIGHT be true if the only use for the money were to pay wages. Universities use their additional monies to fund other things like SJW groups and various Ethnic Study(s) studies.

            Sorry, no soup for you!

          • Pait

            I happen to believe that by and large the laws of supply and demand hold. Perhaps you don’t, or you only believe in them when it is otherwise convenient?

          • johngbarker

            Seems the best explanation when you realize many adjuncts have day jobs and teach college classes as a hobby.How can you compete with people who are indifferent to wages and are working for personal reasons.

          • Pait

            That is of course a problem for people who try to work as adjuncts for a living.

            Nevertheless, even people who teach college classes as a side to their full time careers will prefer higher wages. Supply and demand still holds. The argument in the post is that more money drives wages down, which is in contradiction to the idea of supply and demand. Maybe this is a very special case where the usual laws don’t work….

        • Jim__L

          TAs are unionized in California — at least, they tried going on strike when I was in college.

          I hadn’t heard that this improved matters.

          I also haven’t heard that adjunct salaries have improved at all. In fact, all I’ve heard is that college costs have gone up, loans have gone up, and it still sucks to be an adjunct.

          I don’t know if that’s because there’s a severe oversupply of PhDs, those PhDs are not making rational choices because there’s something “sticky” about continuing to be involved in a university environment, or because standing in front of a class of reasonably bright youth as the “expert” on a subject feeds the ego enough to make it worthwhile at any price.

          • Pait

            I suppose that puts in in the group of people for whom the laws of supply and demand are “oversimplified rules” which are not valid when you declare they don’t.

            Nice to make your acquaintance, Queen of Hearts.

    • Kevin

      This effect is overwhelmed by the horde of new PhDs being minted, most of whom (especially in the social science and humanities) have little alternative source of income.

      • ljgude

        Exactly, they have to do for their resumes and frankly for the experience. and also the point johngbarker made about people with plenty of money who do it as a hobby or even, dare I say it, giving back as service. And then of course there is ego – it is almost always better to say you teach at the local Baccalaureate Bazar than that you flip houses of burgers.

  • JR

    Well, the money for 8th diversity counselor has to come from somewhere. Take out those loans suckers!!!

  • FriendlyGoat

    Would we be wrong to divide the cost of an $80,000 instructor—— teaching 20 students full time, summer and winter—– by 20 students and conclude that such an instructor costs $4,000 per student, summer and winter? I know this is all “more complicated”, as they say, but maybe observers ought to start with this and then ask, what the heck is the problem REALLY?

    • iconoclast

      It is a good start. But I would suggest that paying someone $20,000/quarter for teaching one class a quarter is a heckova nice deal for the instructor.

      An interesting analysis would be to compute the effective F&A (Facilities and Administrative) overhead rate for instruction from real world numbers and compare them to the F&A rate charged to federal grants (27% at my university).

      • FriendlyGoat

        Well, I was trying to set up an example of equivalents—-what one full-time instructor may cost per full-time student.
        So we would need for such instructors to teach more than one class per quarter, just as students take more than one class per quarter.

        As to your second sentence, yes, it would.

  • Robert Burke

    Defund, defund, defund Progressive Education, as it is sanctioned self-mutilation. Replace it with Western Enlightenment. If you like a Constitutional Republic, you can only keep it if you defund Prog Ed.

    PROPOSED: Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment and support of the anti-religion of Progressivism, and shall make no funding of Progressive education, nor shall it fund Progressive training in government, military or any other agency since Progressivism is at eternal, deceitful, hidden war with individual rights, with life, with liberty, with happiness, with logic, with truth, with economy and with laws.

    — And if you think about it deeply, this is the only Amendment required to the Constitution. After tax-funded Prog Ed stops creating evil zombies, the three branches can take care of all other black-hole-sucky issues Prog Ed has made in the past 150 years.

  • iconoclast

    It is more than merely administrators. As friends in academia have pointed out to me, costs also come from the regulatory overhead imposed by these administrator bureaucrats (have to justify their jobs, of course) upon instructors, professors, and departments.

  • qet

    The commodification and proletarianization of higher education was just a matter of time. It is occurring in medicine, and to a lesser degree in law. “Professional” occupations like these most closely resemble craft guilds of yore and they are being ruthlessly “rationalized” by the same processes that once rationalized manufacturing. Ultimately, a professor, a doctor, a lawyer, are only “labor.” In medicine and higher education, the fact that the customers are not the payors, combined with a metastasizing regulatory apparatus that is being welcomed, invited even, by the administrative class, have created the environment necessary to commodification of the services and proletarianization of the labor. The process is occurring less rapidly in the law because, for now, most lawyers are paid by private clients using their own funds.

  • Nate Whilk

    Colleges can’t afford to hire enough full-time faculty to educate their growing student populations

    Can’t afford? CAN’T AFFORD?

    The GD MF-ing illegitimate children running the colleges, sucking money from ALL of us taxpayers, are just as greedy as the capitalists they sneer at and teach their students to hate.

    Shut off ALL government funding of colleges and student loans. Take all the top administrators, trustees, whatever, tar and feather them and run them out of town on rails. I hope they all burn in hell forever.

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