Reversing Course in Pennsylvania Higher Education: The Two Tiers in Faculty Pay and Benefits and a Way Forward

Stephen Herzenberg
Publication Date: 
January 20, 2011

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Over the last generation , the instructional staffing system in U.S. higher education has experienced a significant reduction in the proportion of jobs for full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members and a dramatic growth in ”contingent” instructors—full-time nontenure-track, part-time/adjunct faculty and graduate employees. About 70 percent of the people teaching in U.S. colleges today hold these temporary jobs, which lack tenure or a chance to become tenured. A recent study commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers and conducted by JBL Associates found that contingent faculty members now teach approximately half of all undergraduate public college courses in the United States.

Contingent faculty members comprise an important component of the teaching force. They often bring unique experience and specialized knowledge to the classroom. Contingent faculty members, however, are not compensated proportionately for their contributions, and typically receive low pay and inadequate employment benefits, such as pensions and health insurance.

Nationally, part-time/adjunct faculty members, who make up the majority of the contingent faculty pool, receive an average of $2,758 per course—only a quarter of what average full-time (tenured and tenure-track) faculty members receive on a per-course basis if their full salaries are divided by the average number of classes they teach. Calculated the same way, full-time faculty members who are not on a tenure track earn, on average, only two-thirds as much as their tenured/tenure-track colleagues.

While the growing reliance on contingent faculty is well established nationally, little detailed information exists on higher education staffing in particular states and individual higher education institutions. To begin addressing the lack of state-level data, this report extends recent research on higher education staffing trends to public institutions in one state—Pennsylvania. The report describes how Pennsylvania’s public colleges and universities employ and compensate full- and part-time/adjunct faculty members and graduate employees to teach undergraduate courses. It documents Pennsylvania’s system-wide reliance on contingent instructors and the disproportionately low salaries associated with part-time instructional employment.

To gather our data, we distributed a survey to Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges, 14 state-funded four-year schools (the State System of Higher Education), and four so-called state-related institutions: Lincoln University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Pittsburgh and Temple University. Eleven of 14 community colleges and the State System of Higher Education as a whole responded to our survey, providing a reliable baseline for these institutions. For the most part, state-related institutions did not respond to our survey. To plug this gap, we extracted from publicly available sources as much information as we could on state-related institutions.


We find that Pennsylvania relies on contingent faculty almost as much as the nation as a whole. Big gaps, albeit not as large as national gaps, also exist in the pay and benefits between Pennsylvania contingent faculty and those with tenure or on a tenure track.

Contingent faculty members and instructors teach 42 percent of the courses at all public colleges and universities in Pennsylvania, comparable to the national figure of 49 percent. Part-time/adjunct faculty members alone teach one-third of undergraduate courses.

At Pennsylvania community colleges, contingent faculty members teach 56 percent of courses, identical to the national share. Part-time/adjunct faculty members teach 48 percent or more of courses at the 11 Pennsylvania community colleges that reported data.

At state-related institutions, contingent faculty teach a similar share of courses as at community colleges—59 percent counting graduate employees and 55 percent not including graduate employees. At Temple University, when you include graduate employees, contingent faculty teach a stunning 68 percent of undergraduate courses and at Penn State contingent faculty teach 59 percent of courses.

Contingent faculty members earn lower wages per course than full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members and part-time/adjunct faculty earn particularly low compensation.

At Pennsylvania community colleges, the per-course pay for part-time/adjunct faculty is 43 percent that of full-time tenured/tenure-track faculty. This is somewhat higher than the national figure of 32 percent.

At state-related universities, relative pay per course for part-time/adjunct faculty is only 19 percent of the per-course pay of tenured/tenure-track faculty (if that pay is calculated as the full salaries of tenured/tenure-track faculty divided by the number of classes in a standard teaching load for tenured/tenure-track faculty. Full-time nontenure-track faculty earn only 28 percent as much per course as tenured/tenure-track faculty. Graduate employees make up the best-paid portion of the contingent workforce at state-related institutions.

Contingent faculty pay rates are higher at State System schools, where both parttime/ adjunct faculty members and nontenure-track full-timers earn 63 percent as much per course as full-time tenured/tenure-track faculty.

Absolute pay levels per course for part-time/adjunct faculty members are so low at community colleges ($2,547 per course) that, even if Pennsylvania part-time/adjunct community college faculty members manage to teach a full-time load—by teaching at more than one institution and teaching an overall total of 10 courses per year—they earn an average of only $25,470 per year. This is below a “self-sufficiency income” for a two-person (one adult and one child) family—i.e., below the income necessary for a family to support itself without public assistance.

Most part-time/adjunct faculty members in Pennsylvania public higher education receive NO health or pension benefits.

Only one community college and the State System of Higher Education reported paying part-time/adjunct faculty members any health benefits at all. Only the State System, two community colleges and Temple reported paying part-time/adjunct faculty any pension benefits. All other community colleges and state-related institutions reported paying part-time/adjunct faculty members no health or pension benefits.

Full-time nontenure-track faculty ordinarily receive health benefits comparable to tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Employer contributions to pensions for full-time nontenure-track faculty range from 50 percent to 90 percent of those provided to tenured and tenure-track faculty.

Universities within the State System of Higher Education do not rely on contingent faculty to the same degree as other Pennsylvania public higher education institutions. Relative to state-related institutions and community colleges, State System schools also offer better pay and benefits to contingent faculty.

The main reason that contingent faculty in Pennsylvania public higher education teach a slightly lower share of courses than nationally is the low reliance (20 percent of courses) on contingent faculty at the State System of Higher Education. This 20 percent breaks down to 8 percent of State System courses being taught by part-time/adjunct faculty members and 12 percent by nontenured full-time faculty.

Contingent faculty at State System schools also enjoy pay and benefits more comparable to tenured and tenure-track faculty than contingent faculty at other public higher education institutions.

  • As noted, they earn 63 percent of the per-course salary of tenured and tenure-track faculty, on the high end of the pay scale for contingent faculty.
  • Full-time contingent faculty members receive the same health benefits as their tenured and tenure-track peers, and part-time/adjunct faculty receive partial health benefits.
  • All contingent faculty members have the opportunity to participate in the State System pension plan, although they do not enjoy the same employer contributions as tenured and tenure-track faculty.
  • After five consecutive years teaching full time at a university, nontenure-track faculty members within the State System are placed on the tenure track.

The reliance on and treatment of contingent faculty at State System schools are anomalies in Pennsylvania and across the country. The State System of Higher Education demonstrates that major publicly funded colleges and universities—State System schools deliver 38 percent of all undergraduate courses taught at state-funded higher education institutions—can continue to rely on tenured and tenure-track faculty to teach most courses and achieve decent standards for the pay and benefits of contingent faculty.

Eliminating the two tiers in the pay and benefits of Pennsylvania higher education faculty members requires a long-term plan to shrink the compensation gap between tenured/tenure-track faculty and contingent faculty. It also requires a strategy for expanding the share of courses taught by full-time tenured/tenure track faculty.

The last section of this report considers what it would cost to pay higher education contingent faculty in Pennsylvania equitably and to lift the share of courses taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty to 75 percent. (Equitable compensation for contingent faculty and a requirement that tenured and tenure-track faculty teach 75 percent of undergraduate courses are key provisions of FACE [Faculty and College Excellence] legislation introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature.)

Depending on assumptions made (about the share of the salary of tenured/tenuretrack faculty members that compensates these faculty for institutional obligations other than teaching), we estimate that it would cost between 29 percent and 41 percent of current compensation costs at all institutions. It would cost between 39 percent and 49 percent at community colleges and 46 percent and 67 percent at state-related schools.

In part, the extensive reliance on contingent faculty at community colleges and other public higher education institutions reflects inadequate public investment in higher education in Pennsylvania. For example, Pennsylvania invests only 37 percent as much in community colleges on a per capita basis as the national average.1


Better Data. To build upon the findings in this report, to push for change at the state level, and to help institutions prioritize the changes they need to make to reverse reliance on poorly paid contingent faculty in public higher education, there needs to be more public reporting of the data gathered for this report. It is not sufficient to report head counts. There needs to be systematic public reporting of who teaches what courses, their salaries and their benefits.

The passage of the Public School Codes Amendments (Act 61 of 2008), which mandated reporting of data for the state-related universities, was a first step toward systematic reporting on Pennsylvania higher education staffing.2 Given some ambiguities in those data revealed by the research for this report, data on state-related institutions should also be made less confusing. (For example, the status of part-time/adjunct professors—are they tenured/tenure-track or not?—needs to be clarified and information provided separately for “professors” who are, and are not, tenured/tenure-track.)

Furthermore, to be accountable to the public that funds and relies on public higher education, all public colleges and universities should be required to report comprehensive information, including per-course pay for each faculty category, teaching loads and the costs of benefits to the institutions. For large departments (e.g., those having more than eight full-time equivalent faculty), data also should be broken out by major department.

Data from each institution should be compiled annually into tables and figures similar to the ones in this report that facilitate comparison across institutions, both within categories (community college vs. community college) and between categories (community colleges vs. state-related institutions). The raw data itself should be available in data sets suitable for additional analysis by independent researchers.

Public investment should not exacerbate economic inequality and should provide a foundation for high-quality education. Beyond a commitment to good data and to transparency, another principle that should be incorporated into Pennsylvania higher education funding is that state policies not increase the number of jobs that fail to support a family, thereby increasing the problem of economic inequality. At the moment, state funding does increase economic inequality and increase the number of jobs that pay too poorly to support a family. In fact, inadequate public funding for higher education plus the lack of any wage or benefit standards that apply to all publicly funded higher education teaching positions lead directly to the “two tiers” in higher education compensation that this report documents. As a result of these two tiers, individuals performing the same work, and who often went to the same graduate schools, make half, or a third or a quarter as much as their colleagues.

Public policy should work on both halves of this problem: the cost pressures faced by higher education institutions, especially by community colleges, and the need for some basic wage and benefit standards that lift up the lower tier of higher education teachers. Pennsylvania should develop a long-term plan to increase state funding for higher education and dedicate a portion of increased investment to ensuring fair pay and benefits for contingent faculty. These are not controversial recommendations:

The high-level Pennsylvania Advisory Committee on Part-Time Faculty made similar recommendation to state lawmakers in a 2003 report. In the long run, treating contingent faculty members more fairly should deliver a double benefit—a better quality of life for these instructors and their families as well as an improvement in the quality of higher education in Pennsylvania, helping the state to succeed in a knowledge-based global economy.

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1. The estimate of per capita investment in community colleges by Pennsylvania relative to other states is based on data from the American Association of Community Colleges. For additional discussion of how Pennsylvania’s low investment in higher education translates into high tuition at community colleges and State System schools—especially relative to top states—see Stephen Herzenberg and Marianne Bellesorte, Investing in Pennsylvania Families (Swarthmore, PA: PathwaysPA, 2007), online at See especially Table 2-1 and pages 15-16.