The Effect of the Financial Crisis on Tenure-Track Jobs
The economic shock of 2008 has cast a long shadow over the job prospects for doctoral students who aspire to academic careers. A decade on, instead of signs of recovery, departments and the modern language disciplines continue to assess the latest damage. Much of what we see in two- and four-year institutions in the United States seems a fresh intensification of stresses evident from the 1990s and even further back, from the 1970s—especially institutions’ decades-long turn to non-tenure-track, especially part-time, teaching appointments and the consequent emergence of a majority contingent academic workforce to keep pace with the growth in student enrollment in higher education (fig. 1).1
The record of JIL ads certainly points to a sharply reduced level of hiring to tenure-track positions in English and the other modern languages. Is the situation of the modern languages representative?
The steep post-2008 plunge in opportunities for new PhD recipients to enter full-time and especially tenure-track academic employment has been much discussed and is clearly reflected in the trend lines for the number of jobs advertised in the MLA Job Information List (JIL) since the 2007–08 academic year. The years since 2011–12 have seen the number of jobs in the JIL drop to historic lows, below even the trough years of the 1990s (MLA Office of Research 7; fig. 2). The long-standing, chronic imbalance of PhD production and career-sustaining academic job opportunities, which has dogged doctoral education since the 1970s, has once again reached a crisis level, with no sign of improvement in the offing.
Plotting the trend line for jobs in the JIL’s English edition against the trend line for new doctorate recipients in English—drawn from the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED)—makes apparent what Louis Menand has described as the pain-inducing pincer effect that results when academic job opportunities contract but the production of PhDs does not (29; fig. 3). Since 2007–08, we’ve seen a steep decline in English positions announced in the JIL but an increase in doctorate recipients.
Changing Trends in Faculty Positions
These trend data for the number of jobs advertised and the number of doctorate recipients prompt questions about how the balance of tenure-track and non-tenure-track, full- and part-time faculty positions has been changing; whether the absolute number of tenure-track appointments is declining; and what the available data sources tell us about trends in hiring and the institutional demand for new faculty members, especially tenure-track faculty members. The record of JIL ads certainly points to a sharply reduced level of hiring to tenure-track positions in English and the other modern languages. Is the situation of the modern languages representative? Are tenured and tenure-track positions, and tenure itself, disappearing from the landscape of the disciplines and higher education? Are there data that can help us understand the level of institutional demand for tenure-track faculty members and its relation to the supply represented in the annual production of new doctorate recipients?
The Fall Staff and Employees by Assigned Position (EAP) survey components of the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) provide the most comprehensive time series information about the faculty and other categories of higher education employees.2 Figure 4 shows the trend in the number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members documented in the Fall Staff survey for 1995 and the EAP surveys for 2005 and 2016 (the EAP survey was introduced in 2003). Between 1995 and 2016, the absolute number of faculty members holding full-time tenured or tenure-track positions at two- and four-year public and private nonprofit institutions grew by 10.7%. In 1995 the Fall Staff survey counted 394,973 tenured or tenure-track faculty members employed by 2,265 two- and four-year public and private nonprofit institutions. The number grew to 414,363 in 2005 and to 437,226 in 2016; but the number of institutions employing tenured and tenure-track faculty members decreased, from 2,265—or 70.7%—of 3,204 institutions in 1995 to 2,083—or 63.2%—of 3,294 institutions in 2016 (fig. 4).3
As figure 4 also shows, 95.9% of the growth in the number of tenure-track faculty members occurred between 1995 and 2005, while all the growth in the tenured faculty ranks came between 2005 and 2016. Between 1995 and 2005 the number of full-time tenure-track faculty members grew by 20,786, from 110,298 to 131,084; in 2016 the EAP counted 131,971 full-time tenure-track faculty members, a mere 887 (0.7%) more than a decade earlier, in 2005. Between 2005 and 2016 the tenured faculty added 21,976 members, growing to 305,255 from 283,279. But in 1995 the IPEDS counted 284,675 tenured faculty members, 1,396 more than in 2005. One infers that a wave of tenured faculty retirements lies behind the 0.5% contraction in the tenured faculty ranks between 1995 and 2005, whereas movement into the tenured ranks of the 20,786 tenure-track faculty members added between 1995 and 2005 seems likely to account for most of the 21,976 (7.7%) increase in tenured faculty members the IPEDS surveys document between 2005 and 2016.
Over the same twenty-two years, 1995 to 2016, when the tenured and tenure-track faculty grew 10.7%, the portion of the faculty in full-time non-tenure-track and part-time appointments nearly doubled, an expansion in the contingent portion of the academic workforce more than eleven times greater than the increase in the corps of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Overall, the ranks of full-time non-tenure-track faculty members grew by 208,914 (138.4%) and the ranks of part-time faculty members grew by 284,864 (76.6%; fig. 5).
Putting these numerical changes together, we see that the 10.7% growth in the absolute number of faculty members with full-time tenured and tenure-track appointments implies a 30.0% (or nearly 13-percentage-point) decline in the segment of the faculty holding tenure or on the tenure track (fig. 6 and fig. 7).
The shift in the ratio of tenure-track to non-tenure-track positions has been especially dramatic in four-year institutions. Since 1995 the share of the faculty holding tenure or on the tenure track has fallen 18 percentage points, or 34.5%, from 52.2% to 34.2% of the faculty population by head count, whereas the share of the faculty with full-time non-tenure-track and part-time appointments expanded to 27.4% and 38.4%, respectively (fig. 8). Faculty members in contingent, part-time appointments now constitute the largest of the three segments of the academic workforce, even in four-year public and private nonprofit colleges and universities.
Two-year institutions saw a modest increase in the share of the faculty in full-time non-tenure-track positions and a corresponding decrease in the portion holding full-time tenured or tenure-track appointments. In 1995, public and private nonprofit two-year colleges already had 64.6% of their faculty members in part-time positions, and across the twenty-two years from 1995 to 2016 part-time faculty members have consistently made up close to two-thirds or more of the two-year-college academic workforce (fig. 9).
The Effect of the Economy on New Hires
The Fall Staff survey includes a component that counts new hires to full-time positions in each of the occupational categories the IPEDS tracks, including (until 2013, when the categories underwent extensive revision) executive, administrative, managerial, and other professional positions as well as full-time tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track faculty appointments. The record of new hires makes clear how the economic shocks of 2001 and 2008 curtailed hiring across postsecondary education (fig. 10). Across all occupational categories, new hires counted in fall 2003 were 18.5% below the level of 2001, while those counted in 2009 were 27.4% below the level of 2007.
The “New Hires” section of the Fall Staff survey also illuminates the level of demand for full-time tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members in relation to other (nonfaculty) professionals. The economic boom of the late 1990s fueled a significant upturn in hiring across all three categories of professional positions between 1995 and 2001—but the strongest gains were in nonfaculty positions, and the weakest were in tenure-track faculty positions. The shocks of 2001 and 2008 led to sharp drops in new hires across all occupational categories, followed by recoveries that were successively larger and more pronounced for the nonfaculty professionals and successively smaller and more muted for the tenure-track faculty (fig. 11).
Figure 12 shows the change from survey to survey in percentage terms within each of the three occupational categories. After new hires to tenure-track faculty positions plunged 25.8% and other (nonfaculty) professional positions dropped 24.6% from 2007 to 2009, new hires of nonfaculty professional rebounded by 27.3% in 2011, while new tenure-track faculty hires increased by only 6.5%. It is not possible to develop comparable data for nonfaculty professionals after 2011 because of revisions the IPEDS implemented in 2013 to the occupational categories used for the human resources surveys.
Figure 13 shows how since 2001 the nonfaculty professional category has claimed a steadily increasing share of all new hires to full-time positions and the shares being claimed by hiring of full-time faculty members, both tenure-track and non-tenure-track, have been gradually declining, especially since 2009. Looking at new hires to faculty positions apart from the other nonfaculty professionals reveals a slightly downward trend since 2005 in the share of new faculty hires that are tenure-track and a corresponding slight upward trend in the share that are non-tenure-track (fig. 14).
New Tenure-Track Hires in Relation to Doctorate Recipients
Plotting new hires to tenure-track faculty positions against the number of doctorate recipients reported on the SED in the corresponding year affords a very rough indicator of the supply of talent qualified to enter tenure-track faculty posts relative to the readiness of postsecondary educational institutions in the United States to absorb those graduates (fig. 15). The indicator is especially crude because academic disciplines vary widely in the fraction of their doctoral students who enter academic careers. Across the 1995 to 2015 period, of new doctorate recipients who reported having a definite commitment to employment in the United States on the SED, 81.7% of PhDs in the humanities on average but only 15.4% in engineering said they were heading to an academic position, whether tenure-track or non-tenure-track, full- or part-time; the average across all fields is 50.7%. In addition, a significant number of foreign nationals who complete doctoral programs in the United States are not competitors for academic positions in the United States because they are not eligible to work in the country or because they have planned to return to their countries of origin.
Despite their limitations, the data summarized in figure 15 may nonetheless suggest how the substantial, and increasing, supply of doctoral talent stacks up against an aggregate institutional demand for tenure-track faculty members that, as measured through the record of new full-time tenure-track hires, appears static at best. Figure 15 divides each year’s production of new doctorate recipients by citizenship status and each year’s new tenure-track hires by institutional type (four-year or two-year) to underscore the uncertainty of specifying the supply-demand relationship in a circumstance where a substantial fraction of the supply may not be eligible for employment in the United States and only the four-year institutions may be seeking PhD talent actively and exclusively. Of course, documenting institutional demand is not an endorsement of it. It must also be emphasized that the demand represented in tenure-track faculty hires is a contingent artifact of institutional and social policies, economic and educational, that on many grounds, economic and educational, warrant challenge and change.
The supply-demand relationship can also be expressed as the changing ratio of new doctorate recipients to new tenure-track hires. This is shown in figure 16, which plots the ratio both for each year’s new doctorate recipients in total and for doctorate recipients who are United States citizens or permanent residents and therefore eligible for employment in the United States. From 1995 to 2015, there have been 3.3 new doctorate recipients for every new tenure-track hire by a four-year institution; the ratio is 2.2:1, on average, for United States citizens or permanent residents. Figure 15 also makes vividly apparent how the odds abruptly lengthened after 2008—and have remained long at 3.7:1 and 2.4:1, respectively, ever since. Figure 16 uses new tenure-track hires by four-year institutions to calculate the ratio, since only in four-year institutions is the PhD uniformly required to hold a tenure-track faculty appointment. These ratios doubtless understate the reality because they match only a single year’s cohort of new PhD recipients against the record of new tenure-track hires for that year.
Distribution of New Full-Time Faculty Hires across Institution Types
In the 2016 Fall Staff survey, the Carnegie research/doctoral institutions claim the largest share of new full-time faculty hires by far—45.1% of new hires to full-time tenure-track positions and 46.3% to full-time non-tenure-track positions. Carnegie master’s institutions come next with a 25.0% share of new tenure-track hires and 19.9% of new non-tenure-track hires, followed by the associate’s colleges (14.7% of tenure-track hires and 14.4% of non-tenure-track hires), baccalaureate colleges (9.4% of tenure-track hires and 8.8% of non-tenure-track hires), and special focus and tribal institutions (5.8% of tenure-track hires and 10.6% of non-tenure-track hires; fig. 17 and fig. 18).
Looking at the Carnegie research/doctoral, master’s, and baccalaureate institutions separately makes clear the predominance of the public, doctorate-granting universities in the hiring of new full-time faculty members, both tenure-track and non-tenure-track (fig. 19). Public Carnegie research/doctoral institutions claimed 43.5% of all new hires to full-time tenure-track positions and 41.3% of all new hires to full-time non-tenure-track positions in this subset of institutions. Overall, 68.2% of new hires to full-time tenure-track positions and 55.1% of new hires to full-time non-tenure-track positions went to public institutions.
The Ratio of Part-Time to Full-Time Faculty Employees
The “New Hires” component of the Fall Staff survey asks only about new hires to permanent full-time positions. As of 2016, in degree-granting, two- and four-year public and private nonprofit institutions, part-time employees made up only 28.6% of nonfaculty employees—but 47.5% of the faculty workforce (defined as instructional staff apart from research and public service). Two of the three categories of professional employees that touch students most directly and extensively—the faculty and student and academic affairs staff (librarians are the third)—have the lowest percentage of full-time employees, 47.5% and 34.1%, respectively, whereas the percentage of full-time positions in other categories exceeds ninety percent (fig. 20).
A bright light needs to be directed to institutional policies and processes that undermine the capacity and stability of the faculty…
Confined as it is to full-time hires, the “New Hires” component of the IPEDS leaves shrouded in obscurity the hiring of the part-time teachers who have come to make up such a large fraction of the postsecondary faculty workforce and who deliver an increasing share of institutions’ undergraduate teaching effort. A bright light needs to be directed to institutional policies and processes that undermine the capacity and stability of the faculty, create conditions of work for it so disadvantageous and disparate from those that colleges and universities routinely provide for other categories of professional employees, and make the labor of providing undergraduate education an increasingly precarious enterprise.
1. For data on enrollments, see “Table 303.25”; the data in figure 1 and others on the faculty and on new hires are available in the complete data app/uploads/sites/3 for the 2005, 2015, and 2016 Employees by Assigned Position surveys and for the 1995–2016 Fall Staff surveys (nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/DataFiles.aspx).
2. The Fall Staff and EAP surveys count the faculty as an institutional aggregate and not as broken out by discipline or broad disciplinary groupings like humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Changes in the way the IPEDS data are collected, categorized, and reported also make development of comparisons across time something less than a precise exercise. The 1995 Fall Staff survey, for example, which is used as a baseline here, categorizes the faculty as employees whose primary job is instruction, research, or public service—and offers no way to disaggregate the three components. The IPEDS human resources surveys for 2005 and 2016—used here as specimen years for tracking change since 1995—treat instruction, research, and public service as three separate variables; in its published reports on those surveys, the United States Department of Education specifies the faculty as employees institutions reported under instruction and apart from employees reported under research and public service. To align the three survey years as closely as possible, this essay applies the 1995 definition of the faculty across the three specimen years. The numbers given here thus differ from those published by the Department of Education. Also, partly for comparability and partly to focus on the subset of colleges and universities in the United States of greatest pertinence for MLA members, the institutional universe treated here has been limited to two- and four-year public and private nonprofit colleges and universities in the fifty states and the District of Columbia. Because the Fall Staff survey does not separate medical from nonmedical faculty members and provides tenure status only for full-time faculty members, both medical and nonmedical faculty members are included in faculty counts for 2005 and 2016; only full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members are counted when comparing the numbers of faculty members with tenure or on the tenure track in 2005 and 2016 with the number in 1995; and the small number of part-time faculty members with tenure or on the tenure-track are included in counts for the part-time category.
3. The 414,363 tenured and tenure-track faculty members reported in 2005 were employed by 2,229 of 3,313 institutions. In figure 4, only institutions with full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members are included in the institution count. In both 2005 and 2016 there are two institutions that reported part-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members but zero full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Thus, the number of institutions with tenured and tenure-track faculty members, whether full- or part-time, is 2,231 in 2005 and 2,085 in 2016.
Menand, Louis. “The PhD Problem.” Harvard Magazine, vol. 112, no. 2, Nov.–Dec. 2009, pp. 27+.
MLA Office of Research. “Report on the Modern Language Association Job Information List, 2016–17.” Modern Language Association, Dec. 2017, www.mla.org/Resources/Career/Job-Information-List/Reports-on-the-MLA-Job-Information-List. PDF download.
“Table 303.25: Total Fall Enrollment in Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions, by Control and Level of Institution: 1970 through 2015.” Digest of Education Statistics, 2016, United States Department of Education / National Center for Education Statistics, Feb. 2017, nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_303.25.asp.
Correction: An earlier version of figure 15 included incorrect labels for the counts of doctorate recipients who were citizens or permanent residents of the United States. The labels gave the number of doctorate recipients who were temporary visa holders or whose status was unknown.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Until July 2018, David Laurence served as director of the MLA Office of Research.