College faculty salaries show slim gains over 50 years

Adjusted for inflation, the numbers aren’t very positive, according to report from Lending Tree’s Student Loan Hero.
By: | January 28, 2021
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Now might not be a good time to talk salaries, what with a pandemic raging, budgets tightening and the potential for departments closing at some colleges and universities.

But when it comes to faculty, those conversations haven’t happened much over the past 50 years, according to a new study done by Student Loan Hero, a division of Lending Tree. Researchers there note that salaries for faculty, when adjusted for inflation, have risen only 9.5% since 1971. The number is a much slimmer 3.1% at public institutions.

That these considerations might not occur in 2020-21 are understandable given the massive financial hurdles institutions are facing during this COVID-19 moment … and the many hands that are tied especially at public colleges and universities. But if remaining competitive is essential, should salary bumps be worth a conversation?

“Although revenues among colleges have grown significantly in the past few decades, salaries for faculty haven’t kept pace,” says Rebecca Safier, a Certified Student Loan Counselor and senior staff writer for Student Loan Hero and Magnify Money and a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Given this data, it may behoove higher education leaders to take a closer look at their school’s budget and consider investing more in the salaries of their faculty. Low compensation could dissuade qualified people from becoming professors, which in turn could lower the quality of education a school has to offer.”

How that can occur is the $64,000 question. The American Association of University Professors notes that salaries have remained flat for the pool of a half million faculty members for the past five years. That is unlikely to change much in the next 12 months.

Faculty salary numbers might not seem egregious on the surface – average annual rates of income range anywhere from just over $60,000 per year to more than $100,000 at institutions across America. A full doctoral professor at a private institution can earn more than $200,000. But are they still being undervalued? That is a question that Lending Tree’s Student arm sought to explore.

Who is doing well, who isn’t?

The researchers at Student Hero culled salary data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia and compared the salary numbers for two individual years: 1994-95 to 2018-19, again, adjusting for inflation.

The District of Columbia far and away had the highest increase, with a 25% jump for faculty over the 24-year period. New Mexico was the least forgiving, as salary percentages when adjusted for inflation dropped 3.9%. Four other states posted negative numbers – Alaska (-1.9%), Wisconsin (-1.1%), Mississippi (-0.2%) and Arkansas (-0.1%).

The others that showed 15% or more positive gains across that timeline were New Hampshire (+24.4%), Massachusetts (+20.4%), Delaware (+17.8%), California (+17.1%), Vermont (+16.3%) and Rhode Island (+16.3%).

Depending on location and cost of living, salaries fluctuated greatly in 2018-19. The lowest average salary was $62,811 in Mississippi, followed by Arkansas ($63,583) and West Virginia ($66,772). The areas with average salaries above $100,000 included D.C. at more than $115,000, along with Massachusetts, Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. New Hampshire was just a smidge under at $99,600.

The Student Loan Hero team noted that the somewhat small returns against inflation for faculty were eyebrow-raising in 2018-19 given that revenue spiked to $409 billion.

According to data culled from the National Center for Education Statistics, faculty hirings also rose during that period from the early 70s to 2018-19. At public institutions, there was a slight increase of 3.1%, while they soared 31% at private colleges and universities.

One interesting twist that occurred during that period is that public university faculty were paid quite a bit more 50 years ago than their private counterparts, but that flipped by 2018-19, with those at privates earning nearly $12,000 more than those at public colleges. At two-year public universities, faculty earned about $10,000 less in 2018-19 (adjusted for inflation) than they did in 1970-71.

The AAUP’s Faculty Compensation survey done for 2019-20 showed other striking statistics:

  • Women are making about 20% less than men, and the organization says that hasn’t changed in the past decade.
  • Salary growth over 2019-20 (and before the pandemic) increased by just 0.5% year over year when adjusted for inflation.
  • Though retirement benefits were offered to 97% of full-time faculty and medical benefits to 94%, part-timers often don’t get either. Nearly two-thirds receive no compensation other than their pay per course or section.
  • Presidential salaries meanwhile have grown more than faculty during that span.