November 16, 2015

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: So You’re Getting a Ph.D.: Welcome to the worst job market in America.

As late as 1970, more than two-thirds of faculty positions at U.S. colleges and universities were tenure-line, but now the percentages are reversed, with 1 million out of the estimated 1.5 million Americans teaching college these days classified as “contingent” faculty, the overwhelming majority of them working part-time. Parents who have shelled out or borrowed the more than $60,000 per year that it can now cost to attend an elite private college may be shocked to learn that their young Jayden or Sophia isn’t actually being taught by the Nobel Prize-winners advertised on the faculty but by shabbily attired nomads with ancient clattering cars who are wondering how to get the phone bill paid. Some adjuncts have successfully unionized. In 2013 adjuncts at the University of Oregon won the right to a boost in base pay, regular raises, health insurance, and the ability to qualify for multiyear contracts. That still didn’t erase—and perhaps set in stone—their second-class faculty status, and they still would earn tens of thousands of dollars less than the greenest assistant professor.

Explanations for this two-tier phenomenon abound. Marc Bousquet, now an associate professor of film and media at Emory University, contended, in his 2008 book, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, that the problem was the “corporatization” of the university. Bousquet argued that formerly high-minded academia figured out that it was actually a business. Like the rest of American businesses during the 1980s and 1990s, Bousquet argued, universities adopted outsourcing as their most profitable economic model, transforming their historic teaching mission into a form of low-wage, gig-economy service employment in which the majority of the instructors, like Uber drivers, are responsible for their own overhead.

An alternative and less class-warfare-driven theory came from Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. In his 2011 book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, Ginsberg targeted administrative bloat as the culprit for the massive shrinkage in tenure-line faculty from the 1970s onward, even as college tuition costs were rising exponentially. He pointed out, for example, that between 1998 and 2008, America’s colleges increased their spending on administration by 36 percent while boosting their spending on instruction by only 22 percent. In an adaptation of his book for the Washington Monthly Ginsberg wrote: “As a result, universities are now filled with armies of functionaries—vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants—who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.”

To conservative critics of academia, the shrinkage of tenure-line faculty may seem to be a good thing: fewer “tenured radicals” shoving their Marxist-derived ideologies down the throats of hapless undergraduates. After all, some 63 percent of college professors define themselves as either “liberal” or “far left,” compared with only 12 percent who place themselves on the right, according to a 2012 survey by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. . . .

As Kelsky—but almost nobody who is actually still inside academia—points out, there’s an elephant in this clamorous room of underemployed scholars. It’s the fact that from a supply-and-demand standpoint, graduate schools are simply turning out way too many Ph.D.s for the academic market to bear, depressing their wages accordingly. It’s a similar crisis to the glut of new attorneys that law schools were churning out in recent years even as law jobs paying enough to cover sky-high law school debt were disappearing. The law market seems to have corrected itself, with law school enrollments steadily plunging since 2011. That collapse hasn’t happened with graduate schools. Indeed, throughout the 2000s and beyond, new enrollments in master’s and doctoral programs of every kind continued to climb, even in the arts and humanities, where the job pickings are slimmest.

If only someone had warned them.

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