Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

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Community-College FAQ: How Long Before I Get Tenure?

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Image: New York Herald's 1906 Calendar

We’re at that point in the hiring cycle when most of the tenure-track jobs have already been posted, and application deadlines are fast approaching. And that means I’m hearing two common questions from job candidates:

  • What does it take to get tenure in the two-year sector?
  • And what is the typical salary for a tenure-track position at a community college?

The tenure process. In my previous post in this FAQ series on the faculty hiring process, I noted that earning tenure isn’t especially difficult at most community colleges. What I didn’t mention is that some two-year institutions don’t even offer tenure. In my experience, the more university-like a two-year college is — that is, the more it focuses on transfer programs as opposed to technical and vocational ones — the more likely it is to offer tenure.

That said, most community colleges do either have tenure or something very much like it, such as a system of “continuing contracts.” In such a system, once full-time faculty members accept and fulfill a certain number of annual contracts — usually, three or four — they are considered “permanent” employees and their contracts are renewed automatically each year. To earn “continuing” status, the faculty member must simply earn acceptable marks on annual performance reviews in the areas of teaching, service, and professional development.

At some two-year institutions, like mine, achieving tenure takes a little longer (five or six years), and the requirements are more stringent. In some parts of the country, particularly the Northeast, tenure requirements at two-year colleges are similar to those at regional universities.

But I think it’s fair to say that, at most two-year colleges where tenure (or a continuing contract) is a possibility, the hard part is getting on the tenure track to begin with. Earning tenure, once you’re there, is relatively straightforward, so long as you’re teaching effectively.

The question of salary. That’s a difficult one to answer because community colleges vary so widely by region and state. The latest survey data compiled by The Chronicle shows that the average salary for a full professor at a community college is $70,186, compared with $60,797 for associate professors, $54,101 at the assistant rank, and $60,897 for instructors.

That last figure might seem odd: Why would instructors make more than assistant or even associate professors? The answer: Some community colleges don’t have academic ranks, which means that all of their faculty members are “instructors.” Of course, many of them have been on the campus for years and have (relatively) high salaries, which skews the overall average for instructors.

Two primary factors affect community-college salaries: (1) rank (where applicable) and (2) longevity. Some institutions or systems have step raises — meaning a faculty member’s salary goes up by a predetermined amount each year, usually as the result of a collective-bargaining agreement. On nonunionized campuses, annual cost-of-living raises are likely determined by state legislatures. Some states, like mine, require raises to be based on merit.

But in my experience (more than 30 years in four different community-college systems) it all comes out about the same: As a full-time faculty member, you can expect raises of between 2 percent and 4 percent a year, except in those years —like from 2008 through 2014 — when there is no money for raises at all.

So those average salary figures listed above are a bit misleading. The numbers are skewed upward because so many faculty members at community colleges have reached the midpoint of their careers, or beyond (which is a nice way of saying they’re old). Starting salaries are quite a bit lower — usually between $40,000 and $50,000. A candidate with a Ph.D. might receive a premium — typically in the $5,000 range. And of course, as I noted, starting salaries can vary significantly by region: They tend to be much higher in states like California and New York where the cost of living is also much higher.

My advice: If the salary for a position isn’t posted in the job ad — and I believe salary should always be included in job ads, but obviously nobody asked me — then do a little digging on the institution’s web site. Chances are you can find salary information, perhaps even a detailed chart, on the HR page. If that doesn’t work, try going to the system’s site, because compensation policies might originate at that level.

Bottom line? You’re never going to get rich as a community-college professor, but you can probably make a decent living, especially as half of a two-income family. The benefits are pretty good, too (for now at least). And at most two-year colleges, full-time teaching jobs offer relative job security in an insecure world. And that’s not a bad reason for deciding to pursue a communitycollege career.

Best of luck. Readers who have other questions can email me at rob.jenkins@outlook.com.

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