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.