Centrality & Inequality: Breaking Down U.S. University Faculty Pay, 2022-23

So far on this blog I’ve explained a bunch of arcane but important number-letter combinations academics may not be familiar with, given advice for a number of different academia-specific financial decisions, and mocked university administration every chance I got. I’ve busted out a few graphs, but it hasn’t been a data-heavy enterprise up until now.

Let’s change that. Today I’ll break down some standout statistics on U.S. faculty pay from the American Association of University Professors 2022-23 Faculty Compensation Survey. This is a survey of university administrators fielded to hundreds of schools of different types employing hundreds of thousands of faculty every year, which I’ll update you on in the future.

Now, though, let’s talk how your risk of pursuing and remaining in an academic career varies by job title and institution type. My goal here is to help you decide at the beginning of your career whether or not your likely salary trajectory is sufficient compared to non-academic alternatives. The comparison won’t be precise, of course, but it gives you somewhere to start as you try to look into the crystal ball of your academic future.

The broad takeaways will be obvious to academic veterans, but the details should still be informative, and of course newbs and those considering grad school need to learn somewhere. The TL;DRs:

  1. Since 2020, university faculty have lost more than half of a decade’s progress in real dollar pay.
  2. If you get and stay on the tenure track at a doctoral university, you may or may not get rich, but you’ll almost certainly avoid poverty and probably be middle class+.
  3. At lower tier universities (master’s or baccalaureate), the middle ranges and above are potentially reasonable on the tenure-track (depending on the location), but the low end can get pretty low.
  4. Community colleges have very wide variance in pay, paying surprisingly well on the high end, but the floor is low.
  5. In full-time instructor positions at any university type, your earnings will be 44-69% of your full professor colleagues, and the gap is bigger at doctoral institutions than elsewhere. But you’ll likely earn above-U.S.-median income.
  6. Unless your adjunct class is a side hustle for your real career or you’re stuck, get out if/while you still can.

You can find any calculations I’ve made beyond those in the report on this Google Sheet.

Recent History: A Real (Pay) Downer

As shown in Figure 1 and Table B in the report, we’ve gotten hosed in real dollar terms since 2020. Average real faculty pay decreased an average of -4.1% across all ranks 2020-21 to 2021-22. These declines were somewhat higher for full professors (-4.5%) than for lower ranks (-3.7 to -3.9%). This was no mere short-term shock, either, as faculty pay continued to decline in the 2021-22 to 2022-23 window an average of -1.7%, once again concentrated among full professors.

This decline erases much of the improvements in real dollar faculty pay over the past decade, particularly among full professors. Relative to 2012-13 pay, real dollar faculty pay across ranks peaked in 2019-20 at 12.3% higher, which was meaningful progress. This was needed because these increases occurred in the wake of three years of stagnant pay 2008-09 through 2010-11 during and after the Great Recession. Unfortunately, much of that progress is now lost. Compared to the same baseline, in 2022-23 the improvement is now only 5.6%. For full professors, it’s just 1.3% (after a 2019-20 high of 9.1% improvement). While I applaud the implication that full professor pay raises were foregone in favor of supporting more junior faculty, that kind of decline in real dollar standard of living is tough for anyone.

I suspect that if we are to recover these gains, it will take at least several years of negotiations and strikes as administrators hoard cash in anticipation of the coming demographic cliff. At my university, it’s become very clear that administrators have no intention of increasing pay in line with inflation, effectively clawing back real gains in faculty pay. Cal State’s administrators seem to have done the same. Yours probably have, too. We won’t get it back without a fight.

Differences in Pay by University Type

Doctoral Universities: Reasonable Floor, High Ceiling

If you get tenure at a doctoral university in the U.S., you’re going to be just fine, although you may not get rich. If you look at Survey Report Table 5 in the report, even at the 10th percentile in pay of doctoral universities, the average assistant professor earns $76k, and full professors earn in the low six-figures. Your specific salary will of course vary by discipline, unionization status, leverage at time of hiring, and lots of other factors, but that average is high enough that I’d wager that very few if any assistant professors at doctoral universities earn below-U.S.-median salaries ($40,480 in 2022).

At the high end of the distribution, you can make really good money. The average full professor at the 90th percentile of universities by pay earns $206k. That’s probably concentrated in high cost of living areas, but that’s serious cash anywhere. Those lucky few are likely setup for life. Sure, they might make more money outside of academia, but I won’t be crying for them and neither should you.

Within-rank inequality is quite high at the doctoral level, however. The ratio of average pay at 90th percentile institutions to average pay at 10th percentile institutions (hereinafter 90/10 ratio) is 1.95 for full professors, 1.63 for associates and assistants, and 1.75 for instructors. Your financial fortunes at doctoral universities will depend quite a lot on which school you work at (along with cost of living, which isn’t reflected in these data). Generally, the gap between the 90th percentile and the 50th percentile (hereinafter 90/50 ratio) is generally moderately higher than that between the 50th and 10th percentiles (hereinafter the 50/10 ratio). In other words, the cross-university payscale is moderately right-skewed.

Decision rule: If you would prefer an academic career and are willing to forgo potentially higher pay or shorter hours outside academia to get it, you can expect a moderately to very comfortable pay trajectory if you get tenure at a doctoral university. Congratulations, you won the lottery! Now help others coming up behind you.

Master’s and Baccalaureate Universities: Still Solid Ceilings, Lower Floors

The best paid professors at master’s and baccalaureate universities are still very well paid at least in nominal terms. For instance, full professors at the 90th percentile of master’s universities average $132k, and actually $144k at baccalaureate universities. Again, you won’t be fabulously wealthy on those salaries in downtown San Francisco or Manhattan, but you’ll absolutely be fine even then. In the middle ranges, these averages are relatively ok too, although significantly lower than same-rank / same-percentile professors at doctoral universities.

The main issue in these universities is the floor is much lower than what we see at doctoral universities. The ratios comparing non-doctoral universities’ same-rank salaries to doctoral universities’ are pretty consistent across the range at the assistant and associate professor level: 18-26% lower for master’s universities and 20-29% lower at baccalaureate. (The gaps at the top end of the salary distribution for full professors are wider, mainly reflecting the very high salaries of those at the top at doctoral universities.) However, these similar ratios take you into salary ranges where I’m starting to be concerned for your well-being if you aren’t independently wealthy, supported by a better-paid partner, or living in a low-cost-of-living area. Average assistant pay at the 10th percentile is $54k in baccalaureate universities and $60k in master’s universities, and of course those averages summarize a distribution including many salaries that are lower. In New York City the city-issued poverty income for a family of 2 adults / 2 children is $36k. The bottom end of these distributions will be getting close to that figure, so hopefully they aren’t located in the highest-COL places.

Within-rank inequality at master’s universities is generally lower than for doctoral universities. 90/10 ratios are 1.74 for full professors, 1.62 for associates, 1.53 for assistants, and 1.70 for instructors. Again, 90/50 ratios are higher than 50/10.

However, within-rank inequality is actually highest at baccalaureate universities. There, the 90/10 ratio is 2.15 for full professors, 1.84 for associates, 1.70 for assistants, and 1.69 for instructors. All of those figures except instructors is higher than that for doctoral universities. I suspect that this is because baccalaureate universities are a particularly heterogeneous group, encompassing both 2nd-tier branches of underfunded public schools and selective liberal arts colleges (SLACs) catering to the scions of wealthy families.

Decision rule: If your best offer coming out of grad/postdoc is at a master’s or baccalaureate university, evaluate your offer relative to local cost of living carefully. Know what you’re unwilling to accept, and proceed accordingly. If your offer is from a high-end SLAC, you’ll probably do pretty well, but if it’s from branches of state universities, it could be tough going.

Associate’s Universities: Surprisingly High Ceiling, Depressingly Low Floor

How well you’ll do financially at an associate’s university (typically a community college) will vary a lot. For full professors, the 90th percentile average pay is $114k, but the 10th percentile is $64k. The same figures are $91k and $52k for associates, $84k and $46k for assistants, and $66k and $42k for instructors. So you can have a pretty-well compensated career at these schools if you work at a well-paying one, but risk poverty wages at the low end of the pay distribution.

However, the pay gaps at these universities compared to doctoral universities in the same pay percentile and rank are pretty stark, particularly at more senior ranks, where the gaps range 54-61%. Gaps for more junior faculty are smaller, ranging 62-71% for associates, 61-70% for assistants, and 67-80% for instructors.

The within-rank inequality metrics are particularly interesting here. Unlike all other university types I examined above, at associate’s universities, the 90/10 ratio is higher for assistants than for associates/fulls, and the 50/10 ratio is higher for all ranks than the 90/50 ratio. Like other school types, the 90/10 ratios are lower for instructors than other ranks, and the 90/50 and 50/10 ratios are better balanced. In other words, the ceiling on pay isn’t that high relative to the median, the floor can be quite low, and the spread between them is particularly stark for assistant professors.

Decision rule: You can have a decently-compensated career at associate’s universities, but how likely that is depends heavily on where you work. My hunch is that the best-paid schools are in high cost of living areas, but are probably also unionized — I would educate yourself about the professorial union landscape and target schools accordingly.

Within-University Type Salary Distributions

Full professor is where the money’s at. I don’t just mean that the pay is higher than lower ranks (duh), but also that the full-associate gap is bigger than the associate-assistant gap. Here’s how it breaks down by university type:

  • Doctoral: associate/full ratio ranges 0.64-0.80; assistant/associate ranges 0.85-0.90.
  • Master’s: associate/full ratio ranges 0.79-0.87; assistant/associate ranges 0.85/0.92.
  • Baccalaureate: associate/full 0.75-0.89; assistant/associate 0.84/0.92.
  • Associate’s: associate/full 0.80-0.87; assistant/associate 0.82-0.93.

A final generality here is that the ratios are generally lower at higher-pay-percentile institutions within university type, meaning the average pay jumps between ranks are larger. So, at higher-category and higher-percentile universities, the pay intercept is higher, but so is the slope over your career.

Part-Time / Adjunct Faculty Pay

It’s bad. To see how bad, we leave our SR Table 5 behind and turn to SR Table 15 (on p26 of the pdf). Methodologically, we should note a caveat here that many administrators who responded to this survey were evidently unable to produce average pay per course for their part-time faculty, which is flabbergasting in its own right.

What’s worse is the pay per course reported by the N=352 (out of nearly 900) administrators who could even be bothered to know what they’re paying 50% of the total post-secondary faculty workforce (as shown in Figure 5) on average. The numbers among this particularly conscientious subgroup are sobering. The average pay per course for part-time faculty is $4,969 at doctoral universities, $3,498 at master’s, $4,073 at baccalaureate, and $3,169 at associate’s (with ranks), for a grand average of $3,874. Maybe that’s fine for recreational / side hustle adjuncts, but for effectively full-time adjuncts it’s devastating: That means that an adjunct in these data who taught four courses each semester and two in the summer would average about $39k in annual pay.

Worse, few of these would-be faculty are eligible for benefits, as shown in Survey Table 16 on the same page of the pdf report. Only 12% of doctoral schools, 4% of master’s, 0% of baccalaureate, and 26% of associate’s schools make retirement benefits available to all part-time faculty, and only about 1/3 make them available to any part-time faculty. The numbers are somewhat better for medical benefits at doctoral universities (53% of schools make all or [mostly] some of their part-time faculty eligible), but at other school types it’s worse than retirement benefits.

These averages hide enormous inequality. At doctoral institutions, for instance, the minimum average pay per section paid to part-time faculty was $632 (and they note they dropped figures <$500 from the analysis, so apparently it is sometimes reported even lower), whereas the max was a whopping $29,513 — average. I don’t know which of y’all are getting that latter number, but hold onto that gig for all it’s worth. For those of you pulling the former number, all I can say is that I’m so sorry.

Junior scholars considering the effectively full-time adjunct path, please reconsider. Yes, sometimes these part-time gigs convert to full-time instructor roles. But as discussed above, the pay for the full-time roles is often quite low, and I suspect lower on average for those moved from adjunct to instructor. I’m not aware of any reliable data on the rate at which these transitions are made, but certainly it’s low enough that we have a seemingly permanent underclass of underpaid, no benefit faculty struggling to get by stitching together part-time gigs at multiple schools. Perhaps you think you can wait and see how it goes, but if you visit online faculty forums such as r/Professors, you’ll frequently hear from faculty who tried this approach, only to learn that after a while, industry organizations will no longer seriously consider you, effectively locking you in. I promise, there is something better out there for you, and you deserve it. If you like, you can always try to periodically teach a course as a side gig to your lucrative, fulfilling non-academic job — hopefully at $29k a course! — but fulfilling your dream of teaching at the college level is not worth a lifetime of poverty. Know what you’re worth, and don’t accept less.

Administrator Pay: A Heartbreaking Tale!

Of course, I’ve yet to tell you the tale of the most heartbreaking table in this report — the financial fate of our administrator overlords. I’m sure you all remember the heartbreak of learning that in 2020 our average presidents took a 4.8% paycut (as shown in Table D). Unfortunately, despite the average 10.3% nominal pay increase they subsequently gave themselves (while the average faculty member got 2.3%), in real terms, university presidents have taken a 5.4% reduction in pay over this time period, meaning that they now have to get by on a paltry $307k (associate’s) to $648k (doctoral) salary on average! Be sure to take up a collection for them at your next faculty senate meeting.

But this tale of woe does not end with our college presidents. Our chief academic officers (Survey Report Table 13) now have to somehow scrape by on an average of $195k (baccalaureate) to $411k (doctoral), and our chief financial officers (Survey Report Table 14) have to make do on $190k (associate’s) to $369k (doctoral). Please, remember these poor souls next time you’re requesting that your school’s already-paltry faculty pay keep up with local cost of living — if they paid you a fair wage, how would these poor administrators afford their summer vacations in over-water huts in Bora Bora? Think about someone else for once, you selfish bastard.

Final Thoughts

There’s lots more in this report to cover, such as gender pay inequities (which I plan to write a future post on), and regional differences in pay (which I also think will be interesting to explore further). For now, I hope you have a stronger grasp of the situation of university faculty generally and the differences within and across institution type and faculty ranks. Particularly for graduate students and early career scholars, I hope this helps you make informed decisions about whether and for how long to pursue an academic career.

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