COVID-19’s Negative Impact on Higher Education Institutions and Faculty Salaries

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

COVID-19 has led to increases in institutional debt for colleges and universities and significant decreases in faculty salaries and benefits, according to data from the American Association of University Professors’ 2020-2021 “Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession,” as covered in July 2021 in a three-part series by Academe Blog.

Even though COVID-19 brought about billions of dollars in relief funding, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “cuts are looming large because state revenues are projected to fall by as much as $200 billion by the end of the 2020-21 fiscal year, according to projections by the Urban Institute.”

The AAUP survey included 932 institutions from across the United States, covering more than 380,000 full-time faculty members for the 2020-2021 academic year and 100,000 part-time faculty members who were employed during the 2019-2020 academic year. The result of the survey showed that 55 percent of institutions implemented salary freezes or reductions and 28 percent of institutions eliminated or reduced some form of benefits. Also, almost 5 percent of institutions terminated the appointments of at least some full-time tenure-line faculty members and almost 20 percent of institutions terminated the appointments of or denied contract renewal to at least some full-time non-tenure-track faculty members.

Institutional debt has drastically increased with more than $336 billion in debt from both public and private institutions. Institutions rely heavily on state support for funding, the state support for academic years 2020-2021 remained the same as the year 2019-2020 due to the $2 billion federal COVID-19 relief. Higher education is now facing a debt problem that might limit its ability to deal with adversity.

Though corporate news sites have covered the economic difficulties faced by university faculty and students, reports that are recent enough to factor in the effects of COVID-19 are more oriented toward pandemic relief plans rather than financial trends at the administrative level. There is more focus on rising student debt than institutional debt, the latter of which affects the stability of faculty salaries and benefits, as well as the prevalence of contingency. A Chicago Tribune article from August 6, 2021, detailed President Biden’s extension of the deadline for federal student loan payments; Biden stated: “‘It will also ensure a smoother transition that minimizes loan defaults and delinquencies that hurt families and undermine our economic recovery.’” Reporting of the pandemic’s effects on tenure status is even more scarce. The New York Times featured a September 20, 2021 opinion piece that addressed decreases in secured tenure positions, citing that “just a third of college professors have tenure or are on track to receive it.” This article, however, centered around emerging attitudes toward specialized disciplines in higher education, rather than the landscape of college finances mid and post-pandemic. Ultimately, corporate news coverage has done little to address how COVID-19 affects the job security afforded by tenure, the growth of upper management, or the debt incurred by universities as newsworthy stories in their own rights.


AAUP Research Department, “New Report on Worsening Economic Crisis in Higher Education,” Academe Blog, July 27, 2021.

AAUP Research Department, “Contingency and Upper Management Growth on the Rise in Higher Ed,” Academe Blog, July 28, 2021.

AAUP Research Department, “The Problem of Institutional Debt,” Academe Blog, August 6, 2021.

Student Researchers: Cassandra Arpin, Nusrah Azeez, and Julia Dickman (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)