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NEA News

Faculty Pay: Five Things to Know

NEA's annual examination of federal data on full-time faculty pay shows salaries aren't keeping up with inflation, but even worse: Faculty at HBCUs and women faculty are still underpaid compared to their peers.
college faculty
Published: March 10, 2022

Key Takeaways

  1. The union difference is clear: Faculty who belong to unions earned about $5,000 more in 2021, on average, than faculty who work in the same states, on non-union campuses.
  2. Deep inequities still exist in the academy. Especially at research universities, women are paid less than men. Meanwhile, faculty at HBCUs earn $24,000 less, on average, than their peers at non-HBCUs!
  3. The report also looks at stipends paid to graduate assistants, who teach classes and conduct research. In 2022, their average annual pay was $18,661.

Every spring, NEA reports on trends in full-time college and university faculty pay. The 2022 report, provided by ASA Research, looks at federal data from the 2020-2021 academic year and includes average salaries paid at every public institution in the U.S., shows the convincing power of faculty unions. Bottom line: faculty who collectively bargain are able to negotiate for more money. At the same time, the new report also shines a light on the persistent inequities faced by women faculty and faculty at historically Black colleges and universities.

Here are five things to know from this year's report: 

#1: Unions Make a Difference

Full-time faculty represented by unions earned about $5,000 more in 2021 than their peers who work in the same states but don’t belong to unions. The difference is even bigger—a whopping $17,000—between union members and faculty working in states without faculty unions.

At community colleges specifically, union faculty members earned an additional $18,000 in 2021, or 27 percent more than non-union faculty in the same states. (Over a 25-year career, the difference amounts to an additional $450,000.) At research universities, the union difference was $6,000.

None of this is surprising to Kathy Jenkins, president of the New Mexico Highlands University faculty union. Jenkins has been at NM Highlands for 25 years, and she remembers when faculty negotiated their first collective bargaining agreement about 15 years ago. It provided an average 10.5 pay increase, with some faculty members getting as much as 25 percent raises, as the contract corrected previous inequities in pay.  

Last year, Jenkins and her colleagues negotiated an 8.5 percent raise, far above the 1.5 percent raises that the state legislature provided to New Mexico’s colleges and universities. “We’ve had great success at the bargaining table,” she says, “because we really, really fight.”   

union difference graphic


#2: Women Still Get Paid Less

Faculty pay doesn’t work the same way as pre-K-12 teacher pay. In K12, all new teachers are paid the same amount; in higher ed, new faculty negotiate their starting salaries, one by one, with their supervisors. In K12, your pay doesn’t vary by subject taught. In higher ed, what you teach matters, as health professors earned an average $50,000 more in 2021 than professors of education. In K-12, teachers’ raises are systematic, tied to years of service and transparently advertised on a district or state salary scale. In higher ed, most faculty raises are based on student surveys and other subjective measures.

At every step, gender is a factor, as women often are penalized for negotiating, and as student evaluations depend more on women’s personalities (are they friendly enough?) than on their teaching abilities, research shows.

So, it’s not surprising the NEA report shows how women faculty get paid less, an average 90 cents for every $1 earned by men at public colleges and universities. The gap is smallest at community colleges, where women earned 97 percent of men’s pay last year, and largest at research universities, where women earned 82 percent. Part of the problem at research universities is that women are far less likely to be full professors—the best paid educators on campuses.

The pay gap is getting smaller, however—and faculty unions deserve much of the credit. At campuses across the U.S., union leaders are demanding equity pay raises and negotiating policies that help women faculty stay in their jobs and rise through the ranks, such as paid parental leave and subsidized childcare.

gender gap

#3: The HBCU Pay Penalty Is Real

The faculty who work at HBCUs often talk about the satisfying mission of their institutions, which are responsible for educating one-third of Black Americans with PhDs in STEM fields. But faculty can’t pay the mortgage with intrinsic rewards.

In 2021, HBCU faculty earned $24,000 less, on average, than their colleagues at other institutions. Or, another way of looking at it: for every $1 earned by a non-HBCU faculty member, an HBCU educator gets 74 cents. The gap is smallest at two-year colleges ($17,000) and biggest at research universities ($27,000). For example, faculty at Florida A&M University, a Carnegie-designated research university and the only HBCU among Florida’s doctoral-granting institutions, are among the lowest paid university faculty in the state.

"I hear this so much from my colleagues: 'I'm only here to help my people.' Or, 'I'm here to make sure D.C. residents are given a quality education because some of our students don't have any other options,' And we do that! When our students graduate, they're ready for the world!" says Arlene King-Berry, a professor of education at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), an HBCU in the nation's capital. 

Their sense of mission keeps UDC's faculty on the job, even when they know they could go elsewhere and earn more money, says King-Berry. But that dedication also enables UDC's administrators to take advantage of the situation, and pay faculty less. "You want us to work until we've got no blood left. You expect this, but you don't want to pay for it," says King-Berry. 

It also doesn't help, notes King-Berry, that since their establishment in the mid-1800s, HBCUs have been funded at far lower rates. "That is racism," she notes. 

HBCU pay penalty graphic

#4: Graduate Assistants Have a Dilemma

Graduate employees teach classes, grade papers, run research labs, and do other mission-critical work to support their universities, even as they also take graduate-level classes. In return, they were paid $18,616, on average, in 2021.

The dilemma is this: How do they pay for basic living expenses—housing, food, healthcare, transportation, and sometimes childcare—on $18,616 a year?

“The history of grad school is basically indentured servitude. No joke! These are the historical roots,” says David Stephens, a research assistant in chemistry at Montana State University (MSU) and secretary of the MSU Graduate Employee Organization. “We’ve come a long way,” he says. “But we are still struggling.”

At MSU, teaching and research assistants formed a union in 2011, after 23 years without a pay raise. In their most recent contract, which went into effect in 2020, they won 4 percent across-the-board raises, plus increases in minimum pay.

Across the nation, the new NEA report shows that stipends paid to graduate employees are nudging upward, likely due to increasing unionization. Many union contracts with graduate employees also have improved access to affordable healthcare and workload limits.

#5: The Overall Picture: More Work, Less Pay

Like all educators, professors worked harder than ever in 2021, as they pivoted their classes online and attempted to support students who were dealing with all of the traumas of the pandemic. Meanwhile, faculty’s “purchasing power,” a measure of salary corrected for inflation, fell 1.3 percent between 2020 and 2021. In other words, despite their increasing work, faculty members felt like they had less money, not more.

The report also reveals geographic differences. The highest paid faculty are in California and New Jersey—two states with high costs-of-living and large numbers of powerful NEA-affiliated faculty unions. The lowest paid faculty are in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Teacher with elementary school students

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.