Changes in Faculty Composition at Independent Colleges

Faculty Composition report cover

​The composition of college and university faculties has changed dramatically since the turn of the 21st century. Today, the majority of new faculty members in higher education are hired as contingent faculty members, defined in this report as full- or part-time faculty members who are not tenured, on the tenure track, or in multi-term contracts. Smaller private colleges and universities have been part of the trend toward hiring an increasing percentage of contingent faculty members, yet the use of part-time contingent faculty is less pronounced in the private college sector than elsewhere. Indeed, a focus on general trends related to contingent faculty—even within the independent college sector—can mask important differences by institutional type, academic discipline, program type, and whether an institution emphasizes undergraduate or graduate instruction.

This report provides empirical evidence about specific trends in faculty staffing, roles, and responsibilities at smaller private liberal arts institutions in the United States, with a focus on the more than 600 four-year colleges and universities that are members of the Council of Independent Colleges. It also addresses how the changing composition of the faculty at such institutions may affect institutional missions, shared governance, strategic planning, institutional decision making, and teaching and learning both inside and outside of the classroom. The analysis draws upon three data sources: comparative data from the U.S. Department of Education, a survey of CIC institutional research (IR) officers, and a survey of CIC chief academic officers (CAOs) about faculty roles and composition.

In 2000, nearly two-thirds (64.8 percent) of faculty members at CIC member institutions had full-time appointments, a slightly higher percentage on average than public or other private institutions (62.9 percent and 63.3 percent, respectively). By 2012, however, the average percentage of full-time faculty members at CIC member institutions had declined to 51.6 percent, with a similar decline at other types of four-year institutions.

These trends reflect the common challenges faced by American higher education to manage growth and address fiscal constraints.

The use of contingent faculty members varies significantly by institutional mission and academic profile, even among independent colleges and universities. CIC member institutions that offer more adult, professional, and graduate degree programs are more likely to utilize contingent faculty members than institutions that serve a larger proportion of traditional undergraduate students. The use of contingent faculty also varies by field, even within the core liberal arts disciplines. Survey respondents reported significant increases in full-time faculty numbers in a wide variety of fields over the past decade, including nursing, biology, psychology, business, chemistry, the arts, and mathematics. Patterns in growth or decline in the number of full-time faculty members were more prevalent in the humanities and social sciences—such as English, foreign languages, history, and religion—than in the sciences or in professional fields such as nursing. Education is a field that experienced relatively similar levels of growth (42.5 percent of institutions) and decline (38.1 percent) in full-time faculty members.

Whatever the independent institution’s academic profile, contingent faculty members are more likely to be hired to teach in adult, online, and graduate programs, and especially to teach in growth areas such as the health sciences. But most traditional on-campus undergraduate programs remain staffed by full-time, tenure-line, or long-term contract faculty members. As a result, the classroom learning experience for the traditional on-campus student may not have changed very much despite contingent faculty trends.

​Council of Independent Colleges
By Christopher Morphew, Kelly Ward, and Lisa Wolf-Wendel
June 2016