The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2020-21

Published July 2021.

This year’s Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession outlines how years of unstable funding, combined with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, have created an existential threat to shared governance and academic freedom in higher education that severely weakens our nation’s ability to effectively educate our communities. The report presents findings from three related studies conducted by the AAUP Research Department: the AAUP’s annual Faculty Compensation Survey, a follow-up COVID-19 survey, and secondary data analyses of faculty and staff employment and institutional finance data. The Faculty Compensation Survey findings indicate that real wages for full-time faculty members decreased, on average; a majority of institutions reported decreases in average real wages for full-time faculty members and in the numbers of them employed. Findings from the COVID-19 survey document institutional responses to the pandemic that included salary freezes or reductions, elimination or reduction of fringe benefits, and terminations or nonrenewals of faculty appointments. Finally, the secondary data analyses characterize long-standing economic crises in higher education—declining fiscal support, over-reliance on contingent faculty, growth of administrations, and spiraling institutional debt—and highlight the need for a New Deal for Higher Education, as called for by the AAUP, the American Federation of Teachers, and other allies.     

Key Findings from the 2020–21 Faculty Compensation Survey

Data collection for the AAUP’s 2020–21 Faculty Compensation Survey concluded in March 2021, with 929 US colleges and universities providing employment data for nearly 380,000 full-time faculty members as well as senior administrators at nearly 600 institutions. In addition to full-time faculty employment data, institutions reported data for over 100,000 part-time faculty members who were employed in the prior academic year (2019–20).

The survey found that real wages for full-time faculty decreased 0.4 percent, the first decrease since the Great Recession, after adjusting for inflation (the Consumer Price Index, or CPI, increased 1.4 percent in 2020). In nominal terms, average wages for all ranks of full-time faculty increased 1.0 percent, the lowest increase since the AAUP began tracking annual wage growth in 1972. Real wages decreased at 67.9 percent of participating colleges and universities, and the number of full-time faculty members employed decreased at 61.5 percent of participating institutions.

For doctoral institutions, average salaries increased 0.6 percent. After adjusting for inflation, real wages decreased 0.8 percent. For master’s and baccalaureate institutions, average salaries increased 0.8 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively. After adjusting for inflation, real wages decreased 0.6 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively. For associate’s institutions with faculty ranking systems, average salaries increased 1.7 percent, an increase of 0.3 percent in real terms. For associate’s institutions without faculty ranking systems, average salaries decreased 2.7 percent, a decrease of 4.1 percent after adjusting for inflation. Average salary growth varied by institutional control and religious affiliation. Average salaries increased 1.1 percent among public institutions and private religiously affiliated institutions, while average salaries among private independent institutions increased 0.2 percent.

Although part-time faculty have surely been disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, data on part-time faculty were collected for the prior academic year, 2019–20, thus precluding in-depth analysis of how part-time faculty have been impacted this year. In 2019–20, average pay for part-time faculty members teaching a three-credit course section was $3,556, an increase of less than 1 percent from 2019–20, when the average pay was $3,532. Average rates of pay varied widely among institutional types, ranging from $2,611 in public associate’s institutions without ranks to $5,760 in religiously affiliated doctoral institutions.

Key Findings from the 2020–21 Follow-Up COVID-19 Survey

US colleges and universities have taken a wide range of actions in response to financial difficulties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when many institutions were already struggling to balance their budgets, many lowered their expenditures by implementing hiring freezes, salary cuts, fringe benefit cuts, furloughs, and layoffs. To understand the ways in which institutions responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, the AAUP administered a follow-up survey in March 2021 that focused on actions taken by institutions in response to the pandemic. We sent invitations to the 929 institutions that completed the 2020–21 Faculty Compensation Survey, and 650 institutions (70.0 percent) responded. The survey asked respondents to indicate how many full-time faculty members were affected by particular actions taken by institutions.

The follow-up COVID-19 survey found that more than half (54.7 percent) of the responding institutions froze or reduced salaries and more than a quarter (27.7 percent) eliminated or reduced fringe benefits for full-time faculty members in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost 5 percent of institutions terminated the appointments of at least some full-time tenure-line faculty members, and almost 20 percent terminated the appointments of or denied contract renewal to at least some full-time non-tenure-track faculty members. Almost 10 percent of institutions implemented furloughs, and over 40 percent implemented tenure-clock modifications.

Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic varied among institutional types. Private-independent institutions were more likely (74.1 percent) to freeze or reduce salaries than religiously affiliated (59.6 percent) and public (42.1 percent) institutions. Similarly, private institutions were more likely to eliminate or reduce fringe benefits for full-time faculty members; 74.1 percent of private-independent and 51.7 percent of religiously affiliated institutions cut fringe benefits, whereas only 4.5 percent of public institutions cut fringe benefits. Doctoral institutions were more likely (72.3 percent) to freeze or reduce salaries than master’s (47.5 percent), baccalaureate (61.7 percent), and associate’s (54.7 percent) institutions.

Key Findings from Secondary Data Analyses

The AAUP Research Department conducted three related secondary data analyses, analyzing longitudinal data to understand long-standing economic crises in higher education that are highly relevant in the current economic setting and to calls by the AAUP, the American Federation, and other allies for a New Deal for Higher Education.

  1. Faculty Contingency
    The study examined the prevalence of contingent faculty appointments from fall 2006 to fall 2019. Such appointments pose an existential threat to academic freedom, which is best protected by tenured appointments.
    • Key Finding: In fall 2019, 63.0 percent of faculty members were on contingent appointments; 20.0 percent were full-time contingent faculty members and 42.9 percent were part-time contingent faculty members. Only 26.5 percent of faculty members were tenured and 10.5 percent were on tenure track.
    • Data Source: NCES Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) HR survey component, including data from the 2019–20 provisional release.
  2. Growth of Administration
    The study examined the growth from 2011–12 to 2018–19 of upper-level administration in higher education, a trend that puts shared governance at risk.
    • Key Finding: From fiscal year 2011–12 to fiscal year 2018–19, the numbers of staff classified as “management” increased 12 percent per FTE student, real average salaries increased 7 percent, and salary outlays per FTE student increased 19 percent, including an extraordinary 24 percent increase in real salary expenditures per FTE student in public colleges and universities.
    • Data Source: IPEDS HR and Fall Enrollment survey components, including data from the 2019–20 provisional release.
  3. Institutional Debt
    The study examined the explosion of institutional debt, which might limit an institutions’ options for dealing with adversity, from 2008–09 to 2018–19.
    • Key Finding: US colleges and universities reported a total of over $336 billion in long-term debt in fiscal year 2018–19, a growth of 71.1 percent since fiscal year 2008–09. Long-term debt at public institutions grew 50.2 percent, while long-term debt among private institutions grew 116.0 percent.
    • Data Sources: Grapevine project of the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University, IPEDS Fall Enrollment survey component 2019–20 provisional release, and the National Student Clearinghouse’s “Term Enrollment Estimates: Fall 2020” report.

Report Highlights

The report includes two tables presenting annual full-time faculty salary growth by rank in both nominal and real terms from 1972 to the present, eighteen summary tables that allow for comparisons among different categories of colleges and universities, and three institution-specific appendices that provide average pay and benefits data for each participating institution. New sections in this year’s report include: (a) findings from institution-level analyses that highlight the differential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic; (b) findings from the follow-up COVID-19 survey described above; and (c) findings from secondary data analyses described above.

The report includes a brief review of the goals of the AAUP’s Faculty Compensation Survey, a call for greater participation and transparency among all colleges and universities, and guidance for faculty members at institutions that may be facing budgetary hardship. It concludes with an urgent call for governing boards, legislators, and other policy makers to provide funds for a substantial readjustment of academic salary levels to avoid irreparable harm to the US higher education system.

Download the report as a PDF.

Download the appendices.

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