October 14, 2010

College Costs : What Part Do Professor Salaries Play?

By now most of us know that college costs have gone up considerably in the past couple decades.   Tuition has increased at a rate much higher than inflation.  Previously I pointed out that one big reason tuition is going up is that state tax dollars are paying a lower portion so more cost is shifting to tuition bills.   Actual spending per student has gone up about 4% while tuition goes up 7-8%.   Still a 4% annual increase is higher than the inflation rate.

Why is college spending going up faster than inflation?  One possible cause that I've seen people claim is that professor salaries are the reason college costs have gone up so much.    That seems like a plausible theory but we'd have to know exactly how much professor salaries have increased.    So how much have professor salaries gone up and have wages contributed significantly to tuition inflation?

Exact data showing salary increases for professors over history was not easy to find.  But I can approximately figure the general rate of increase by looking at salaries today versus 25 years ago.

Current Salaries for Professors

The BLS has wage data for postsecondary teachers which is the general term for college level instructors including professors.     They say: "According to a 2008–09 survey by the American Association of University Professors, salaries for full-time faculty averaged $79,439.  By rank, the average was $108,749 for professors, $76,147 for associate professors, $63,827 for assistant professors, $45,977 for instructors, and $52,436 for lecturers."

Professor Salaries  in 1984

The report FACULTY SALARY ANALYSES BY REGION, RANK,AND DISCIPLINE FROM 1977-1978 TO 1983-1984  shows salaries in 1983.   The average professor salary is in the Figure 3 on page 6.  The graph is not easy to read but they are showing the professor salary at above $36,000 level.   It looks like it could be around $38,000 to $40,000.

This old Preliminary Report on Faculty Salaries 1984 - 1985 for the University of California system cites some average salaries.  You can see in the Figure 1 on page 10 that they highlight the average professor salary at around $40,000 $45,000 levels for 1984.

Average Salary of Full-Time Instructional Faculty from 1984 to 2007.  Its from University of Massachusetts Amherst.   In 1984 the average salary for all ranks was $39,174.

Rate of Increase

Using the first report and taking a figure of $36,000 or $40,000 for 1983 and then going to a salary of $80,000 or $100,000 in 2009 that would result in a 2.8% to 4.2% annual rate of increase.

Starting with a salary of $40,000 in 1984 for the U.C. system and then going to a salary of $80,000 or $100,000 level for current professor wages that would give an annual increase of 2.8% or 3.7%.

Looking at just U. Mass. numbers they also give the 2007 the average salary at $87,963.  Over a 23 year period from '84 to '07 their salaries increased about 3.6% annually.  Inflation over that time period was about 3%.

Other sources

A report from the American Council on Education shows the salaries of college instructors over time from 1970 to 2007 in constant 2007 dollars.   So this is adjusted for inflation.  You can see the pay rates are mostly flat over time but they have been creeping upwards somewhat.

Of course every professor and every college is different.   I'm talking about average wages across a large industry.  There are undoubtedly individual professors or colleges who have seen small increases and large increases in wages.

Bottom Line:  Professor salaries have increased at a rate around 2.8% to 4.1% over the past 25 years.   This is mostly in line with inflation and not a cause for college costs to increase as much as they have.

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