Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-19204-013, via Wikimedia Commons
I learned not long ago that as a tenure-track assistant professor* of history I was making the same salary as a deckhand on the Staten Island Ferry.
I don’t begrudge the deckhand his salary one bit, because I know as well as anyone that you can barely support a couple of people on that money in New York City.
Also, while I believe my work is very valuable to society, I think everyone’s work is valuable. We need deckhands.
The thing is, the deckhand on the Staten Island Ferry probably doesn’t pay
$950$1150 a month in student loans (Sallie Mae just hiked the rate on us again). And he probably started work before the age of 30 because he didn’t need 8 years of post-graduate education to get that job, so he got that salary or something like it for all those student years that I was living on beans and rice and couldn’t afford coin-operated laundry machines. And hopefully (though these days you sure can’t count on it) he’s been paying into social security and a pension plan all those extra years that I wasn’t, while I was still being trained for my job. So that means the deckhand on the Staten Island Ferry is very significantly better off than I am financially. And let’s just remember that the deckhand–though his work is as valuable as anyone’s–is not the driver of the ferry, who has the safety of thousands of people in his hands.
Now let’s compare my salary to that of a first-year law firm associate in New York City. The law firm associate is likely to make at least twice as much money per year, not including the annual bonus. That person may indeed have the same loan burden that my family has, though (law school is how we got most of ours). But the law associate can handle it, and will probably pay it off in about five years (we’re only paying off interest, so we’ll be doing that every day of our lives until we die). That cushion can also easily cover the much nicer professional wardrobe that a law firm associate needs to work long hours in an office, as opposed to long hours at home that I work (though, arguably, I actually work more hours total, which is saying something). And the law associate only needed 3 years of post-graduate education to get that job, so potentially he has about five extra years of earning and paying into a pension, too. At twice the salary. Not to mention that Manhattan corporate lawyers get access to private banking accounts with fabulous terms (no fees for anything! Extra special interest! All the perks rich people get to make them more rich, also including tax loopholes). What does the NYC law firm associate contribute to society? Well, judging by what someone I know very well once did when he had this job, he helps corporations make sure they don’t pay their employees the money they are entitled to. Or something similar. While I teach the citizens of this democracy to think critically. Okay, so neither of us is curing cancer, or saving your life when you get into a car accident. There’s a reason I’m not including medical doctors in this comparison.
Of course, what I’m describing here is not at all what all, or even most, lawyers do. I really wouldn’t whine about the vast majority of lawyers, many of whom make as little or less than I do anyway, and many of whom do incredibly important things for our society. I’m talking about corporate lawyers in Manhattan, and even then, there are exceptions. There are firms that exist more or less to go after the money-grubbing firms. But—as a rule of thumb I’ve noticed that the more useful your work is to society, the less money you make (with the glaring and rightful exception of the medical profession). Still doubting? Two words: social workers.
There’s a funny thing, too, that should be mentioned about New York City. The last numbers I saw estimated that NYC salaries are about 20% higher than the national average, while the cost of living in NYC is about 200% higher. Unfortunately that was a print source and I lost my original, but here are some links that can give you a pretty specific idea of what it’s like: costs broken down by type of expense, Daily News articles on the general awfulness, CNN cost of living calculator so you can compare how far your salary would go here.
Yeah. Bridging that tremendous gap would be easier if I were making twice the salary I make now, for twice as many years. The rent my family pays on a small, cockroach-invested 2BR apartment in a questionable neighborhood in Queens could get us a beautiful 4BR house in most parts of this country. The costs of groceries and transportation in NYC still make me boggle, after over a dozen years here. Childcare was an unaffordable dream on my salary for the first three years of my daughter’s life, yet without childcare there’s little hope of doing the work that could help us earn more. But my point is merely that there’s tremendous regional variation in income and how far that income will stretch, which is helpful to keep in mind when one is comparing salaries.
There’s been quite a bit of news around the country lately about the supposedly astronomically high salaries of faculty driving up costs for college. I won’t link to it because I don’t want to be a part of driving traffic to those sites, but it’s easy enough to find.
This is another of those pernicious lies. It’s scapegoating. Faculty are being pinched just like students and parents are.
Who is telling these lies about faculty salaries? Mostly politicians and university administrators. Who’s not feeling the pinch of the higher costs of university education? Mostly politicians and university administrators. Yep. Always ask yourself what the person telling you “facts” has at stake, and examine where they got their information.
That goes for me, too, of course. So let me tell you where I got my information.
First, it’s not hard to find out what faculty really make. Most of the sensationalist news articles have been giving a single “average” salary figure for all faculty at an institution, or even all faculty in general, and in every case that number has made my eyes bug out of my head in fascinated disbelief. I have no idea where they’re getting those numbers from, but I can tell you that you can search here, at the Faculty Salary Survey from the Chronicle of Higher Education and get actual average salaries of actual faculty at nearly every university in the country, broken down by rank and gender.
It’s important to break down the figures, and ideally you’d break them down even more than that site does, because salaries vary widely across the academy. From well below the poverty line to astronomical sums. This is really wide variation, which is not accounted for by variations in cost of living.
So lets talk first a bit about how and why faculty salaries vary so much.
First, are we talking about full-time or contingent faculty? The majority of people teaching college-level courses in this country are contingent faculty. Contingent faculty are usually paid on a course-by-course basis, with zero job security and zero benefits. It is not physically possible to live on this money unless you teach an insane load, like 8 courses at a time, and even then, you’ll barely scrape by. NO ONE does this unless they are either (a) absolutely desperate to get a full-time job and hoping this will help them to achieve that dream, and/or (b) they love what they do so much that they are willing to work mostly for free, usually at great personal sacrifice. In most cases, working as contingent faculty is only possible for families with another “real” income from somewhere else.
So when we’re talking about faculty salaries right off the bat we have to exclude all the contingent faculty who don’t really get salaries at all. And let me repeat: these mostly selfless and often desperate people are the majority of faculty in this country. Look here at the Coalition on the Academic Workforce Survey to see what kinds of pay (if you can even call it that) are typical for contingent faculty across the country.
How about full-time faculty?
Well, from the first link I gave you above, the first thing I hope you’ll notice is that across the board, at comparable ranks and institutions, women make less than men. Sometimes a LOT less. A small part of this disparity may be explained (though not excused) by the fact that there are more women in the fields that pay less (basically, the humanities), but that doesn’t explain away the whole gap. It’s also less common for women to negotiate for higher salaries than it is for men, but that too doesn’t explain away the whole disparity. Some schools are—for reasons I can’t fathom—much worse than others. But the pay gap between men and women exists, unfortunately, in nearly every field of employment in this country.
Let’s go back to the fact that the humanities are paid less than other fields. If you have a friend or relative who is an accounting professor, you may be under the impression that faculty are pretty well paid. In the case of accounting professors, you may be largely right (allowing for differences between institutions, the gender gap, and assuming we’re talking about full-time faculty). But a professor in the humanities at the same rank, with the same education and same duties, may very well make half what the accounting professor makes, at worst, and certainly will make much less. Fields like accounting, business, law, engineering, and applied chemistry all compete for faculty with employers outside academia. Someone with a Ph.D. in accounting may get a job as an accounting professor, or work as a CPA. So, faculty salaries for accounting professors have to compete with CPA salaries in order to attract good faculty.
If you have a Ph.D. in history, though, the employment options that will most directly make use of your degree are: academia, museum work, k-12 education, and government research. All historically under-paid fields (it is not a coincidence that all but the last are also historically dominated by women—historically female professions are universally less well-paid than historically male professions). So, universities don’t need to offer as much to attract the top candidates, and subsequently history professors make much, much less money than professors in accounting, business, law, and a few other fields. The same is true for other humanities fields like philosophy, literature, languages, and fine arts. Social sciences and some of the hard sciences, and mathematics, are an in-between category, where Ph.D.s are generally more employable outside academia, but not as obviously so as in more applied fields, and so the salaries in these fields may sometimes be slightly higher than in the humanities, sometimes not.
Then there are some fields in the hard sciences where faculty salaries are largely paid by outside grants. These can sometimes (but far from always) be higher than average. And other fields, mainly athletics, are hugely higher paid at certain institutions because they help to create a money-making industry (like a successful football or basketball team).
There are also vast differences based on the employing institution. You can poke around on the web site I linked to, and what you’ll find is that the hierarchy of salaries basically follows this pattern (note that I’m talking about the US throughout this post — faculty salaries around the world follow other patterns):
Research-1 universities (huge private and public university systems with enormous research budgets, like the Ivy League, Chicago, Stanford, Berkeley, U of Michigan, Wisconsin, NC-Chapel Hill, etc) – pay the highest salaries across the board, in order to attract the top researchers in most major fields, in order to maintain their status as the world’s best universities.
Small liberal arts colleges with huge endowments (like Middlebury, Pomona, Williams, Sarah Lawrence, etc) pay the second highest salaries. They have enormous amounts of money from internal sources, and can afford to attract top faculty in order to attract a very selective student body.
Major state universities and smaller private liberal arts colleges (like Michigan State or Kalamazoo College or my own employer, Queens College, CUNY) are third in line — they are mostly hiring top candidates from top Ph.D. Programs, so they have to offer respectable salaries compared to their peer institutions, but they’re usually not involved in bidding wars over big names or establishing top programs in any field.
Regional schools and community colleges (like Grand Valley State University or LaGuardia Community College) — smaller schools like these rely principally on contingent faculty, but the full-time faculty they do have are often there because they need a job in that region or are committed to the mission of schools like this that serve populations who would not otherwise be able to afford college, so they are often forced to compromise on things like salary.
The final major variation in salary range in the academy is based on experience. Like anywhere else, faculty salaries start fairly low and climb higher over the years for any given faculty member. Salaries for senior scholars grow incrementally from the base salary, so women faculty tend to be earning even less compared to their male peers when they get to senior positions, because their raises are a percentage of their lower starting salary. The same is true for faculty in the less well-paid disciplines—they start out earning less and so their percentage raises are also less.
Often, when the media reports a “typical” faculty salary, the salary they quote can only be that earned by a big-name star senior faculty member at a research-1 institution in a field with a very competitive non-academic job market. So, yes, it is entirely possible for a faculty member to be earning half a million dollars a year. But there are only handfuls of such faculty in this country. The vast, vast majority are lucky if they make the equivalent of a deck hand on the Staten Island Ferry, while they also struggle to pay off gigantic student loans and, much like the rest of the middle class in America these days, do not look forward to ever enjoying a pension adequate to support life.
There is also an enormous generational difference. The generation of faculty who entered their first jobs in the two decades following World War II (and the GI Bill that brought record numbers of college students into the system) are largely male, largely had wives who could afford not to work and thus took care of childcare and the home, largely were offered jobs instead of competing for them, and largely had respectably upper-middle class salaries and zero student loans (the major federal student loan programs started in the 1970s). It was much harder to reach the point of a Ph.D. for that generation—with few exceptions you had to have the right sort of background in addition to being very bright and working very hard—but once you got a Ph.D., you got a job and a salary on which you could support a family. Much has changed for subsequent generations, and not just in academia.
While the percentage of Americans going to college continues to grow, the pace of growth has slowed, and universities are choosing to expand the administration rather than the faculty (leading to larger student-faculty ratios and more courses taught by TAs). Meanwhile, Ph.D. programs have churned out more and more graduates, creating an increasingly huge surplus of qualified candidates (I get my information on this phenomenon in my discipline mainly from the American Historical Association — I’m not sure how much of their publications are available to non-members). This means these graduates, more and more desperate for more and more competitive jobs, can be offered relatively lower and lower salaries. Meanwhile, access to Ph.D. programs has broadened—all you need to get in now is brains and drive, no matter what your background, with a few significant exceptions—but for this very reason more and more Ph.D. students have to take out loans to complete their education.
(A personal example: I am the second person in my very huge extended family to get a Ph.D. My maternal grandfather was the son of truck farmers, my paternal grandfather grew up malnourished in Kansas during the Depression, where he got his first job to help support his large family when he was nine years old. With excellent grades and test scores, I was able to attend the second most expensive private college in the country—and in my not-humble opinion the most rigorous college in the world—with half the tuition paid by grants and half by loans. I competed to get into a top grad program with paid tuition plus a small stipend. All these opportunities were unprecedented for someone of my background just one or two generations earlier. But, I also have a big debt burden and can’t look to my family for financial support, unlike some of my cohort in graduate school, and radically unlike the previous generation of Ph.D.s).
So where on earth is the astronomically rising costs of college coming from?
There are a few explanations that I’ve read about and seen with my own eyes.
First, for the more competitive schools, there has been a rising expectation that to attract the best students colleges need state-of-the-art technology, gyms and other recreational facilities, and living spaces. All this is very expensive, and has contributed to the rising cost of tuition in private colleges, especially.
Second, there’s one part of university payrolls that has sky-rocketed since the 1980s. It ain’t faculty salaries. It’s administrative salaries. A part of this is justifiable—new federal regulations require new personnel. And, justifiable or not, the new facilities that parents and students increasingly expect—like gyms and dorms but also disability services, writing tutors, etc—require administrators. As a rule, although they do not directly educate students, administrators make more money than faculty (the disparity is far greater for top-level administrators, though the sheer numbers of arguably suitably paid mid- and lower-level administrators is, collectively, part of the rising costs). The reason for this is presumably that administrators, like accountants, can choose to work in the private sector, so their salaries need to compete.
(Are you noticing a trend here? That universities take advantage of the Ph.D. degree that uniquely qualifies graduates for the professorate by paying them much less than anyone else with less difficult-to-obtain degrees? Obviously no one would put up with this…unless they were so devoted to their subject of inquiry and their teaching that they put up with being treated unfairly in return for making a difference in the world….cf. social work, teaching, nursing, mothering, and most other female-dominated professions….)
But there’s still another phenomenon at play here, and it’s true at every institution of higher education in the country. Since the 1980s, there’s been a push to apply “corporate” or “private” financial principles to the administration of institutions of higher education. On this principle, top administrators have been hired at astronomical salaries (at least six figures, sometimes high six figures or more) to “fix” university budgets by applying these magical principles of capitalism that make money fall out of the sky.
The thing is, decades have passed, and university budgets have shown no improvement. The biggest difference between the university of today and the university of 1980 is not a streamlined budget and efficient administration. The very idea is laughable. The biggest difference I see is the proportion of the university budget that pays enormous salaries to administrators with no background in education who flit from one institution to the next “fixing” budgets but leaving them, mysteriously, in no better shape than they were before.
The problem is based in part on a fundamental error in how the public, the government, and university administrators understand capitalism. Taking a course in the history of modern Europe or in basic economics could resolve this fundamental error, but apparently a large sector of our public failed to take such a course, or just plain failed it.
If you’re feeling skeptical about what I’m about to say, please, I beg you, read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the acknowledged bible of capitalism. You don’t have to believe me. Go back to the primary source (as any good professor will tell you to do) and judge for yourself. Just don’t blindly believe the talking heads on your TV, I BEG YOU.
Capitalism is about the exchange of commodities. Education is not a commodity.
Confusing this issue is a fundamental error that is bringing down the (to-date) world’s best system of higher education. We are fast losing our edge to new universities in India, China, and the Middle East, because we are mis-applying financial principles to a non-financial sector.
I could go on—and on and on and on and ON—but to spare you I will stop and let you process what I’ve already said.
Just one more thing, while you’re processing. Adam Smith understood what has been lost in the American mainstream discussion of capitalism today: healthy capitalism requires regulation. Without regulation, capitalism is destroyed by monopolies and corruption. The people who are monopolizing and corrupting our capitalist economy are, today, in the mainstream media, accusing true capitalists of being evil socialists (which is also a complete misunderstanding of socialism, but that’s a subject for another post). The irony would be delicious if the consequences weren’t so incredibly dire for nearly every American.
I may seem to have strayed waaaay off topic, here, but it’s all much more deeply connected than you may think. Every citizen in the United States should have a basic understanding of how capitalism works, including the facts that capitalism works with commodities and commercial services (not life-or-death necessities that you can’t effectively comparison shop for or decide not to “buy,” i.e., health, safety, or in our modern world, education), and that it requires basic regulation to avoid falling into corruption (which is by definition not capitalism, but a failure of capitalism). But most citizens don’t have this basic understanding, in large part because civics education has been eliminated from most public school curricula in the past few decades. And because, while more Americans than ever are going to college, they increasingly aren’t taking “frivolous” classes like the history of modern western societies (in which capitalism is always a major theme), or aren’t understanding them, because they come into college ill-equipped to succeed thanks to our decimated system of primary and secondary education. It’s all connected.
Take-home message? As always, question your sources of information.
Why not start with these? Some links to respectable articles about faculty pay and tuition:
CHE: College Costs Too Much Because Faculty Lack Power
NYT: How Much is a Professor Worth?
NPR: The Price of College Tuition
New Yorker: Debt by Degrees
Business Insider: America’s REAL Most Expensive Colleges
Philip Greenspun: Tuition-Free MIT
How the American University was Killed in 5 Easy Steps
New: The Adjunct
* Note that “assistant professor” is not an assistant to a professor. In the US those are known as teaching assistants or research assistants. The three ranks of full-time, tenure-track professors in the US are, in order from junior to senior: assistant professor, associate professor (often achieved along with tenure), professor (known as “full”). A retired professor is “professor emeritus.” All teaching faculty are referred to in a general way as “professors,” usually (but not quite always) including adjunct or other short-term-contract faculty. Almost all faculty these days have Ph.D.s (so that “Dr. So-and-So” usually also applies), but in some fields the terminal degree is at the master’s level, such as a Master of Fine Arts. Generally, the only people independently teaching college-level classes who aren’t loosely referred to as “professor” are graduate students, who are officially “graduate instructors” or “teaching fellows.” In my day, we usually asked students to call us by our first names at that rank. Mind you, in Europe these ranks and titles are all completely different, which is very confusing.