Employment Trends in the Higher Education Workforce: IPEDS Data on Growth in Administrators, Other Nonteaching Professionals, and the Faculty

MLA members have long been attentive to United States Department of Education data that document the decreasing fraction of higher education faculty members who hold tenured and tenure-track appointments and the emergence of a faculty majority that delivers instruction through non-tenure-track, especially part-time, positions. Analysis has generally focused on the faculty as the unit of observation, considered apart from other categories of higher education employees. Department of Education data collected for fall 2014, for example, enumerate a faculty workforce of 1,569,207 in two- and four-year Title IV–participating United States colleges and universities—plus an additional 368,378 graduate student assistants (Ginder et al., 10–11 [table 3]). Of the 1.57 million faculty members, only 27.2% held tenure or were on the tenure track; 52.9% had part-time and 19.4% full-time temporary appointments with no eligibility for tenure.

But the faculty forms only one of the categories of higher education employees that the Department of Education tracks through the human resources components of its IPEDS survey series. (IPEDS is the acronym for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, twelve interrelated surveys initiated in 1986 and required of postsecondary institutions that are eligible to participate in the federal student aid programs authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965.) This past June, in an issue of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s Economic Commentary, Peter L. Hinrichs, a research economist, made apparent the substantial insight to be gained from considering faculty trends in the wider context of all seven occupational categories that the IPEDS used between 1986 and 2011 to classify higher education employees. Hinrichs was interested to discover what light data from the IPEDS Fall Staff Survey might shed on claims “that a proliferation of administrators is responsible for the rising cost of college.” He also wanted to examine the demographic background for “concern about the increasing role of part-time adjuncts and other non-traditional faculty.”

Hinrichs advances three key points. First, “in line with the conventional wisdom . . . a declining proportion of faculty are full-time employees.” Second, the share of full-time institutional employees who are full-time faculty members has also remained stable over time, at about 30% of all full-time employees. Third, and contrary to popular assertions about the proliferation of administrators, “the share of employees in executive, administrative, and managerial jobs has not risen dramatically over time.”

The first two conclusions may strike some readers as paradoxical. The third arguably runs counter to data Hinrichs himself presents and results from the decision he makes about which IPEDS occupational categories to count when considering popular claims concerning “the proliferation of administrators.” He focuses on employees in the “executive, administrative, and managerial” category. But, in one of the most illuminating parts of his analysis, he documents the striking increase in the share of employees—most of them full-time employees—in the IPEDS category “support and service professionals.” As Hinrichs notes, the category covers a broad range of professional positions. Many, such as librarians or legal staff, require advanced degrees. All are exclusive of and nonoverlapping with employees the IPEDS counts in either the “executive, administrative, or managerial” occupational category or the category “faculty” with delivery of instruction as its primary job responsibility.

In a trend analysis of IPEDS data for four-year institutions, Hinrichs shows that over the period from 1987 to 2011 the share of full-time employees claimed by the “support and service professionals” category grew by a whopping 50%, from about 20% to about 30% of all full-time higher education employees, while the faculty’s share remained unchanged. But when he concludes that the results of his study do not support popular beliefs about the proliferation of administrators, he sets to one side the “support and service professionals” group, restricting his attention to the “executive, administrator, and managerial” category, which (as he also shows) claimed only a modestly larger share of employees in 2011 than it had in 1987. The problem that analysis confronts here is not so much the technical one of deciding which higher education jobs rightly fall in the IPEDS’ administrator job category as the rather messier one that follows from asking what jobs the collective popular discussion has in mind when it points to a proliferation of administrators.

To better understand the contribution Hinrichs makes to the ongoing discussion of adjunct labor and the changing academic workforce, the MLA office of research went back to the IPEDS data files to replicate, and also build on, his results and charts. The following discussion and accompanying figures are based on files for two IPEDS human resources components from three specimen years—the 1995 Fall Staff Survey and the Employees by Assigned Position Survey (EAP) for 2005 and 2011. (The data files are available to download at https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/DataFiles.aspx.) The 1995 Fall Staff Survey was chosen because it was the first of the IPEDS survey series to permit analysis of the faculty by tenure status as well as by full- and part-time employment status. We use the EAP survey (introduced as an IPEDS component in 2003) because it permits analysis of employees by faculty status, full- and part-time employment status, and tenure status across the three occupational categories of faculty, administrators, and support and service professionals. The EAP and fall staff surveys cover the same institutional universe and (with some minor discrepancies) produce the same quantitative results.

Figure 1, for example, shows the percentage of institutional employees in each of the seven IPEDS occupational categories in 1995, 2005, and 2011; it replicates results shown in the first figure of Hinrichs’s commentary, which is based on fall staff survey files for the thirteen odd-numbered years from 1987 to 2011. The MLA figure and Hinrichs’s both depict what Hinrichs terms the occupational mix—that is, the percentage of all employees claimed by each of the seven IPEDS occupational categories. The trend lines for 1995, 2005, and 2011 match those Hinrichs’s figure shows for 1987–2011, despite the differences in IPEDS components and in temporal coverage. The institutional universe for both Hinrichs’s analysis and the MLA analysis is limited to degree-granting, Title IV–participating four-year colleges and universities in the fifty states and the District of Columbia; two-year colleges are not included. As Hinrichs notes, and as figure 1 shows, two occupational categories—the faculty and support or service professionals—claim the largest percentage shares and grew the most in comparison with the other categories.

Fig. 1

Of greater significance are trends that become visible when the data are filtered to show the percentage of employees inside each occupational category that have full-time positions (fig. 2) and the share of all full-time employees claimed by full-time employees in each of the seven occupational categories (fig. 3). To calculate the first, the number of full-time employees in each category is divided by the total number of employees in that category; to calculate the second, the number of full-time employees in each category is divided by the total number of full-time employees across all seven categories. The really striking development Hinrichs calls attention to is how only the faculty saw a sharp drop in its full-time members (fig. 2). In every one of the other categories, 80% or more held full-time jobs in 2011, and the share of full-time employees inside each category either held steady or increased over the period. By contrast, in 2011 the portion of the faculty in full-time positions had fallen to under 60%. Figure 2 shows these trends and the growing disparity between the faculty and the other six occupational categories. But, as shown in figure 3, the faculty’s share of all full-time employees remained largely unchanged, while professionals in the support and service category increased their share more than any other group. Figure 2 reflects the enormous growth of part-time positions inside the faculty category; figure 3 reflects the rapid growth in the number of nonteaching professionals in full-time jobs compared with the number of full-time faculty positions, where the trend line indicates growth that barely outpaced the increase in all full-time institutional employees.

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Hinrichs’s exploration of employment trends in higher education is confined to an analysis of changes in the mix of full- and part-time employees in four-year institutions. Hinrichs does not discuss tenure status or the declining standing of the tenure-line faculty in higher education—which is the trend that defines the critical issue for the academic professions and for the prospects of students in doctoral programs who aspire to academic careers. Figure 4 adds the dimension of tenure, separating the segment of the faculty that holds full-time tenured and tenure-track appointments from the segment that holds full- or part-time non-tenure-track positions. The figure also combines the two IPEDS occupational categories “executive, administrative, and managerial” professionals and “support and service professionals.” Aggregating the executive and support groups and separating the tenure-track from the non-tenure-track faculty makes vividly apparent how nonteaching professionals and non-tenure-track faculty members are the only categories that have enlarged their share of the employee mix. The growth in these categories of professional employees stands in stark contrast to the declining fraction of employees in the full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty category.

Fig. 4

In more than a few cases or contexts, there may be good reason to label the increased share of college and university personnel employed as nonteaching professionals pejoratively, as administrative bloat. For the purposes of argument, however, let’s grant the importance of many nonteaching professional positions and the positive contributions these colleagues make to institutional life. After all, some of these colleagues may be degree recipients from our own graduate programs—hardly a surprise given how much of the job growth in higher education, especially full-time jobs, has come in the form of nonteaching professional positions. Pointed questions still wait for answers, however—about institutional policies and practices that, unlike with every other category of college and university personnel, have undermined the stability of the faculty through the massive use of part-time appointments and that have signally failed to maintain full-time employment with a presumption of permanence and the opportunity for advancement through rank as normative for faculty positions (and faculty careers and career paths).

Between 1995 and 2011, the faculty in four-year colleges and universities grew by nearly 470,000, or 72.4%, while nonteaching professionals grew by nearly 400,000, or 75.2%. But of the faculty positions added, nine of every ten were non-tenure-track and nearly six of every ten were part-time; of the nonteaching professional positions, more than nine of every ten added was full-time (fig. 5).

Fig. 5

A recent study conducted for the Council of Independent Colleges found significant, institutionally problematic disparities between the segments of the faculty eligible and not eligible for tenure—in the character and consistency of the institutional policies, practices, and standards governing hiring, compensation, evaluation and review, professional development, support and recognition for continuing scholarly activity, and opportunities for advancement (Morphew et al.). And data from the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF:04) tell us that tenure-line and non-tenure-line faculty members differ markedly in their degree qualifications. In four-year colleges and universities, over 80% of faculty members who have tenure or are on the tenure track hold a doctoral degree. Off the tenure track in four-year institutions, only 30.2% of full- and part-time faculty members hold a doctorate—40.5% of non-tenure-track faculty members with full-time teaching appointments and only 23.7% of those teaching part-time. The disparity in degree qualifications is even larger for faculty members in English and other modern languages—NSOPF:04 data indicate that in four-year institutions 93.6% of tenure-line faculty members in these fields hold doctorates, compared with only 26.9% of non-tenure-line faculty members (fig. 6).

Fig. 6

Discussion of the motivations that direct the teaching preferences of tenured and tenure-track faculty members is of long standing and will continue, as will debates about scholarship and teaching, especially undergraduate teaching, and the place that scholarly publication, and scholarly teaching, hold and ought to hold in the criteria and incentives embedded in higher education’s reward system and in the institutional processes and standards governing the hiring of tenure-track teachers and their promotion through the professorial ranks. Whatever the positions taken or the arguments advanced, restoring equity with other categories of higher education employees in full-time employment and reversing the contraction of the permanent faculty and the expansion of the precariat within the mix of college and university employees must be recognized as steps necessary to healing the breach that institutional policy and practice have created between a minority class of tenure-line faculty members whose continuing employment rests on scholarly expertise expressed as publication and a majority employed to teach and only teach, with little or no institutional expectation, support, recognition, or reward for their continued scholarly engagement.

David Laurence

Works Cited

Ginder, Scott A., et al. Enrollment and Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2014; and Financial Statistics and Academic Libraries, Fiscal Year 2014: First Look (Provisional Data). US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 25 Nov. 2015, http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2016/2016005.pdf.

Hinrichs, Peter L. “Trends in Employment at US Colleges and Universities, 1987–2013.” Economic Commentary, 13 June 2106, www.clevelandfed.org/newsroom-and-events/publications/economic-commentary/2016-economic-commentaries/ec-201605-trends-in-employment-at-us-colleges-and-universities.aspx.

Morphew, Christopher, et al. Changes in Faculty Composition at Independent Colleges: A Report for the Council of Independent Colleges. Council of Independent Colleges, June 2016, www.cic.edu/Programs-and-Services/Programs/Documents/CIC-Ward-report.pdf.