Research sheds light on the changing landscape of faculty employment

July 20, 2011

More and more faculty members of post-secondary institutions are hired either part-time or full-time with the titles of lecturer and instructor, thus causing a decline in the traditional employment model of permanent, full-time jobs with career advancement and stable pay, according to Liang Zhang, an associate professor of education policy studies and a research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State.

In recent issues of Economics of Education Review and Perspectives on Work, Zhang and his colleagues Xiangmin Liu, an assistant professor of labor studies and employment relations at Penn State, and Ronald Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics at Cornell University, discuss the changing landscape of faculty employment.

According to Zhang, in the academic year 1987-1988, nearly 34 percent of all faculty members in post-secondary institutions, including community colleges, were employed part-time, but by the academic year 2009-2010, this proportion had increased to 49.3 percent. Similarly, the proportion of full-time lecturers and instructors among all full-time faculty members has increased from about 10 percent to 22 percent during the same time frame.

“Some people argue that faculty employment at colleges and universities is in transition, from a bifurcated system with full-time faculty supplemented by part-time faculty to a trifurcated system consisting of full-time faculty who are tenured or on tenure tracks, full-time faculty who are not on tenure tracks (most of them lecturers and instructors), and part-time faculty,” he said.

What are the causes of this increasing use of full-time, non-tenure track and part-time faculty in higher education?

“Price matters,” said Zhang. “Institutions have been seeking cost savings and they are more than happy to hire less expensive faculty members to fulfill their instructional needs.”

In their papers, they discuss the financial issues that have contributed to the increased use of full-time, non-tenure track and part-time faculty members by institutions as well as the benefits these faculty members provide to institutions.

For example, they mention the effects these faculty members have had on part-time student education. According to Zhang, the proportion of students who attend colleges and universities on a part-time basis has increased from about 30 percent in the 1960s to more than 40 percent since 2000.

“These students usually have more of a practical orientation than do their full-time peers, and their needs can be satisfied by part-time faculty members who bring real-life experience to the classroom,” he said. “In addition, part-time students are more likely to take evening and weekend classes than full-time students. From this perspective, part-time faculty can be viewed as a qualified but relatively inexpensive expansion of the labor pool, enabling the institution to offer more classes to attract and serve the growing population of part-time enrollments.”

Another benefit of full-time, non-tenure track and part-time faculty members is their indirect contribution to research and development. “Although contingent faculty in most cases are not directly engaged in research activities, they certainly contribute to external grants and contracts revenues by reducing the teaching load of professorial faculty,” said Zhang. “Recent research in this area shows that when the number of full-time faculty is held constant, a higher proportion of part-time faculty is associated with a higher level of external research and development expenditures.”

The team concluded by noting that the increasing use of contingent faculty does not imply that these faculty members are happy in their roles. Some would prefer to work full time or to be on a tenure track. “It is important to understand how the preference of individual faculty members matches with the needs of colleges and universities,” said Zhang.


The Penn State College of Education serves approximately 2,800 undergraduate and 1,200 graduate students each year. The College prepares administrators, counselors, psychologists and researchers, as well as K-12 teachers in 21 different specialty areas. All of the College of Education graduate programs that are ranked by the U.S. News & World Report appear at least in the top 15, with six programs in the top 10. The College is known nationally for its education research and outreach, housing such centers as the Center for the Study of Higher Education, the Center for Science and the Schools, the Mid-Atlantic Center for Mathematics Teaching and Learning, and the Regional Education Laboratory Mid-Atlantic.

For more information on Penn State's College of Education, contact, call 814-863-2216, or visit


  • Liang Zhang

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated August 15, 2011