Academic Workforce Flexibility and Strategic Outcomes in Four-Year Colleges and Universities

May 2018

Has increased use of contingent faculty led to real improvements in institutional performance? This report explores the strategic payoffs of a well-documented trend in academia.


In recent decades institutions have made ever-greater use of contingent faculty, with seemingly mixed results. Analyzing 12 years of data from roughly 1,200 colleges and universities, the authors examine how the rise in contingent faculty has affected enrollment levels, student applications, admission yield, student-faculty ratios, six-year graduation rates, and net revenues. Sectors studied include public and private doctoral, master's and baccalaureate institutions across the U.S.

Key Insights
The proportion of contingent faculty has had no discernable effect on institutional enrollment.
Higher levels of contingent faculty are associated with lower application volume at private baccalaureates; lower graduation rates in private doctorals; and lower net revenues in public baccalaureates.
Across all sectors studied, higher nontenure-track commitments were associated with lower student-faculty ratios. But absent more information on teaching loads, one cannot assume the improved ratios led to smaller class sizes.

The authors based their conclusions on 1) empirical evidence of trends related to contingent faculty hiring, using data from the Higher Education General Information Survey and IPEDS for the years 2002 through 2013; 2) quantitative analyses of institutional panel data on relationships over time between contingent faculty levels and institutional outcomes; and 3) interviews with institutional leaders and observers regarding the connection between workplace flexibility and strategic results at their institutions.