American professors report declining salaries, rising university debt

A recent report by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) confirms tough times for higher education staff and institutions in the United States, over and above COVID-19. The report charts the first decline in academic salaries in a decade. The $336-billion debt universities and colleges have amassed is a ticking time bomb for the sector.

Adjusted for inflation, salaries for full-time faculty fell by 0.4% in the academic year ending in the autumn of 2020, says the AAUP. The previous decline was back in 2011, when the US had not fully recovered from the Great Recession that began in 2007.

Without having adjusted for inflation (1.4%) the salaries of America’s professors rose 1%, part of which is attributable to an infusion of almost US$2 billion in emergency COVID-relief money from the federal government directly to universities and colleges. Still, this increase is the smallest since AAUP started tracking salaries in 1972.

Indicative of the financial weakness of large parts of the higher education sector – and predictive of financial difficulties to come – is the finding that, in the decade beginning in 2009, colleges and universities’ long-term debt grew by 71% to $336 billion dollars.

The crisis did not hit all parts of the higher education sector equally.

“At one end of the spectrum, larger, more selective universities have increased their numbers of faculty members to handle increased student enrolment as their admissions – and endowment assets – have soared,” wrote the author of the study, Glenn Colby, a senior researcher for the AAUP.

“At the other end of the spectrum, some institutions that managed to survive the Great Recession by incurring mountains of debt, and by subsequently increasing tuition to service that debt, have not had enough cash on hand to make payroll.”