How Much Do College Professors Make?
Published on June 1, 2021
- Full college professors in the U.S. made an average of $140,543 in 2020-21.
- Senior-level professors at private institutions boast the highest annual earnings.
- Adjunct and other non-tenured faculty earn considerably less per year.
- Despite rising student costs and executive compensation, professors' pay remains stagnant.
While the role of college professor offers unique rewards, one challenge can be the pay structure. Salaries for university professors can vary greatly, and, unfortunately for some, the pay isn't always as generous as it's rumored to be.
Still, the average college professor salary isn't too shabby. According to data from the American Association of University Professors, the average full-time college professor, combining all instructor types and university categories, made $101,810 in the 2020-21 academic year. Full professors in the U.S. made an average of $140,543 during that same period.
The association looked at average salaries at 929 institutions across the nation and found that, among many qualifying factors, professors' education and job levels, as well as the types of institutions for which they work, influence their average pay.
Professor Salary Varies by Job Level, College Type
Generally, the three main ranks for college professors are assistant, associate, and full. Usually in the beginning phases of their tenure track, assistant professors are full-time, introductory professors who have earned a terminal degree. Associate professors are mid-level, tenured professors, while full professors are at the senior level.
Outside these three traditional ranks, there are also adjunct faculty and full-time, non-tenured faculty with titles such as lecturer or instructor.
Beyond professors' job ranks, the type of university they teach at — public, private or independent, or religiously affiliated — and the education level of the students they instruct can affect their annual pay.
|All Institution Types||Public||Private / Independent||Religiously Affiliated|
Source: American Association of University Professors
The average salary for a full professor at private, doctoral institutions was the highest among all total salaries, at $202,199. Meanwhile, instructors at religiously affiliated universities had the lowest average salary at $51,444.
At baccalaureate institutions, full professors make an average of $99,616 at public universities and $125,420 at private universities. This 23% difference illustrates how much more professors can make in the private sector.
Professor Pay Stays the Same Even as Costs Rise
Over the last decade, shifts in the average college professor salary in the U.S. have been minimal. Between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years, the increase in average professor salaries was just 1% for all professor ranks at all institution types.
When adjusted for inflation, however, this shift actually represented a decrease — the first such dip in professors' salaries since recovering from the Great Recession. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, salaries had risen in the 3% range year over year for the past 10 years.
The stagnant nature of professor pay is surprising when compared with the rising tuition costs and increased pay for top executives at universities. In the last decade, college tuition has increased by approximately 46%, while presidential salaries have risen beyond most experts' ability to track their rise.
Adjunct Professors Often Make Less Than You Think
A report by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) details how adjunct professors — contingent faculty who are not on the tenure track — are struggling to make ends meet.
The report, which surveyed more than 3,000 respondents at two- and four-year universities in May and June 2019, found that one-third of adjunct professors earned less than $25,000 annually. This places them below the federal poverty line for a family of four.
The AFT's findings also disproved the commonly held belief that adjunct professors typically hold other well-paying jobs outside teaching. Only 15% of respondents reported that they can comfortably cover their month-to-month expenses. Additionally, nearly half put off getting needed healthcare, and almost 20% rely on Medicaid.
The study also detailed how much colleges and universities have increased their reliance on adjunct faculty. Today, 3 in 4 faculty are ineligible for tenure and 47% hold part-time positions, whereas 40 years ago, 70% were tenured or on the tenure track.
Professors' Pay Can Top $1 Million, but It's Rare
Though most university professors make less than $250,000 annually, there's a small contingent of professors who have topped the $1 million annual salary mark. This is normally because of other roles they hold at their institutions, beyond that of professor.
In 2018, Zev Rosenwaks of Cornell University earned $8.22 million as a tenured clinical professor, according to tax filings from that year. Rosenwaks' salary was nearly eight times the salary of the university's president at that time.
In 2018, Zev Rosenwaks of Cornell earned $8.22 million as a tenured clinical professor — nearly eight times the salary of the university’s president.
Rosenwaks was one of several Cornell professors to rake in millions in 2018. Associate clinical professors Hey-Joo Kang, Pak H. Chung, and Steven Spandorfer, as well as assistant clinical professor Rony Elias, each earned over $3 million that year.
Besides Cornell, other prestigious universities occasionally offer professors salaries in the millions. David N. Silvers of Columbia University reportedly makes more than $4 million annually as a professor of dermatology and the director of the university's dermatopathology laboratory.
Meanwhile, William E. Fruhan Jr., who is a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, was reported to have earned $1.19 million in 2018.
Feature Image: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images