Trends in Employment at US Colleges and Universities, 1987-2013

By Hinrichs, Peter | Economic Commentary (Cleveland), June 13, 2016 | Go to article overview

Trends in Employment at US Colleges and Universities, 1987-2013


Hinrichs, Peter, Economic Commentary (Cleveland)


A number of commentators have argued that the priorities of colleges and universities in the United States are misplaced. One area of concern is the growth of amenities, such as recreation centers and lavish dormitories.1 Additionally, some have argued that a proliferation of administrators is responsible for the rising cost of college.2 Meanwhile, there is also concern about the increasing role of part-time adjuncts and other nontraditional faculty.3

Many of the issues in higher education that have caused concern are related to employment, and much of what is known about these issues is based on anecdote or on a limited use of data. There has been little systematic study of employment in higher education.

This Economic Commentary explores trends in employment at colleges and universities in the United States between 1987 and 2013. Some of the results from this analysis are in line with conventional wisdom. For example, I document that a declining proportion of faculty are full-time employees. On the other hand, some of the results are counter to popular belief. For example, I find that the share of college employees who are executives, administrators, or managers has not changed appreciably over time.

IPEDS Fall Staff Survey

I use data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (I PE DS) Fall Staff survey. I PE DS is conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics in the US Department of Education. It is roughly a census of colleges and universities, and thus coverage is very broad. I use data on fall employment by occupational category at four-year colleges in the United States in the odd-numbered years between 1987 and 2013.4 I drop data from 1991 due to data irregularities.5 The number of institutions covered by this analysis rises over time from 2,585 in 1987 to 3,065 in 2013.

Between 1987 and 2011, the IPE DS data report for each university the number of full-time and the number of parttime employees in the following seven mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories:

* Faculty

* Executive/administrative/managerial

* Other professionals

* Technical and paraprofessionals

* Clerical and secretarial

* Skilled crafts

* Service/maintenance.6

In 2012, the employment categorization in I PE DS changed dramatically. Neither of the two I PEDS categorizations is a partition of the other, which complicates comparisons of the 2013 data to the 1987-2011 data. However, the newer categorization includes more categories than the earlier categorization, which may allow for a better accounting of employment even though the data are not comparable across years. The new employment categories are again mutually exclusive and exhaustive:

* Instructional staff

* Research staff

* Public service staff

* Librarians, curators, and archivists7

* Student and academic affairs and other education service occupations

* Management occupations

* Business and financial operations occupations

* Computer, engineering, and science occupations

* Community, social service, legal, arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations

* Healthcare practitioners and technical occupations

* Service occupations

* Sales and related occupations

* Office and administrative support occupations

* Natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations

* Production, transportation, and material moving occupations.

The National Center for Education Statistics provides a rough crosswalk between the earlier and later IPEDS employment classification on its website.8 I provide further information in the data appendix on the guidance given in the survey instructions regarding the distinctions between the various employment categories.

Trends in Employment Shares

The faculty group is the largest of IPEDS' seven pre-2013 categories, and it has been growing relative to the other groups (figure 1). …

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