Pay rises for US faculty members remain low for third year in a row

Vast salary gaps exist between US university presidents and faculty members, and men continue to earn more than women.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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Average salaries for full-time US faculty members in 2018–19 barely kept up with inflation, a study finds.Credit: Classen Rafael/Getty

Salaries for full-time faculty members at US colleges and universities have stayed relatively flat for the third consecutive year, but some faculty members fare much better than others, according to a survey.

The poll of more than 950 US colleges and universities was conducted by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a higher-education association in Washington DC with about 47,000 members across some 500 institutions and 40 state organizations.

Researchers found that in 2018–19, average salaries for full-time faculty members rose by 2% from the previous academic year, barely keeping up with an inflation rate of 1.9%. The growth was slightly higher at private institutions (2.2%) than at public ones (1.8%).

Salaries vary widely depending on the type of institution and the faculty member’s rank. Full professors at private PhD-granting universities earn an average of nearly US$196,00 — more than three times the average salary of about $61,000 for assistant professors at religiously affiliated four-year colleges that offer bachelor’s degrees. At the top of the hierarchy, presidents generally earn three to four times as much as the most senior faculty members at their institutions. Median salaries for those top executives ranged from more than $200,000 a year at two-year colleges, which offer associate degrees, to nearly $700,000 at private universities, with a maximum salary of $1.5 million, the survey found.

The survey also included salaries for part-time faculty members from 335 institutions. On average, these individuals earned close to $3,900 for teaching a three-credit course, but actual salaries ranged from just over $2,900 at private, religiously affiliated four-year colleges to nearly $5,900 at private, religiously affiliated universities that offer doctoral degrees.

“As in many sectors of the economy these days, compensation in higher education is highly unequal,” says Gwendolyn Bradley, senior programme officer at the AAUP. “There are some very highly paid individuals at the top supported by many extremely poorly remunerated workers at the base.” She notes that many ‘part-time’ faculty members are forced to cobble together multiple positions into a full-time job without benefits, such as paid holiday and sick leave or health insurance. The AAUP has criticized universities’ reliance on the rising proportion of ‘adjunct’, or part-time, faculty members.

The wide variety of salaries reflects a basic imbalance in the system, says Barrett Taylor, a higher-education researcher at the University of North Texas in Denton and co-author of Unequal Higher Education (2019). “There are enormous and growing gaps between the wealthiest higher-education institutions and all others,” he says.

The difference is especially stark at the highest salary levels. Colleges and universities are motivated to provide large compensation packages to executives who can promise any stability in turbulent times, but some institutions have much more to offer, he says. “At campuses where money is tight, the gap between executive compensation and faculty pay simply cannot be as large as it is at wealthy, prestigious institutions,” says Taylor.

On average, female faculty members in the survey earned about 82% of the salaries of men, largely because they tended to have less-lucrative job titles and to work at lower-paying institutions. This is hardly a new development, notes Bradley, who says that the AAUP has been tracking the gender pay gap since the mid-1970s. “The progress towards equity has been slow,” he says.

Bradley says she hopes that faculty members will be able to use the survey results to put their own salaries into context and, where needed, advocate for equal pay and benefits. “Institutions should also acknowledge that they need to reorganize their priorities and increase their investment in their instructional mission,” she says.

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