It’s easy to get sucked into compelling and heart-tugging narratives like the rapid conversion of full-time faculty jobs into low-paying and erratic adjunct positions.
But it’s simply not true if you look at the numbers.
Phillip Magness, an historian at George Mason University, writes for the Martin Center that while adjuncts went from 22 percent of “instructional employees” in 1970 to “just shy of half” today, their numbers have actually fallen since their 2011 peak:
Despite the common narrative’s intuitive resonance, the instructional workforce of higher education is not being “adjunctified” in any conventional sense. In fact, full-time hiring in U.S. academia has increased every year since the early 1990s. …
This pattern reversal has gone almost entirely unnoticed and many higher education commentators remain in denial. The American Association of University Professors, for example, recently asserted that adjunct hiring “continued to trend higher” in its most recent academic employment report—even though its own cited statistical source shows otherwise.
Full-time faculty jumped about 40,000 between 2011, when they were at “almost perfect parity” with adjuncts, and 2015, while adjuncts fell about 20,000, says Magness, citing “recently released preliminary numbers” for 2015.
For-profit institutions were in fact a primary driver in the adjunct boom that started the early 1990s. While colleges and universities of this type differ widely in product quality and accreditation standards, they also tend to rely upon adjunct instructors at disproportionately high rates. …
As for-profit institutions grew, so did the concentration of adjunct positions they brought with them. Now that the for-profit bubble is bursting due to issues of fiscal solvency and a government crackdown on the standards used by for-profit accrediting bodies, the adjunct workforce is experiencing its own parallel contraction.
Remove the for-profits from the picture and the irrational panic becomes clear, says Magness:
While adjunct use at these institutions has increased numerically, it is nowhere near the boiling point that much of the adjunctification rhetoric claims. …
For the past 40 years, university hiring of full-time faculty has closely tracked overall student enrollment numbers. When for-profit campuses are excluded from the picture, American universities have consistently maintained a stable ratio of about 1 full-time professor to every 25 students.
It’s more likely that “many universities are trying to offer supplemental course times and additional subjects of instruction through the use of a greater number of part-time instructors,” he says.