Colleges and Universities Rely Heavily on Contingent Faculty

Photo of Books, Mortarboard Cap, and DiplomaIt’s American Education Week and we’re reflecting on the changing employment landscape in colleges and universities.

Not so long ago, for many, a faculty career in higher education came with expectations of steady income and almost unparalleled job security. While continuous employment, or tenure, remains a valued feature of higher education institutions, we’re seeing that more and more faculty are employed outside of the tenure track as “contingent faculty,” either part- or full-time. Depending on the school, these faculty members may be referred to as instructors, lecturers, or adjunct or visiting professors, among other terms.

In 2017, we reported that contingent faculty filled about 70 percent of instructional positions nationwide during 2015. Today’s WatchBlog takes a closer look at the characteristics and work experiences of contingent faculty.

Pie Chart Showing Instructional Positions by Faculty Type, 2015

Advantages and challenges of contingent faculty employment

Through interviews at public and private colleges and universities in three states, we learned about some of the advantages and challenges that contingent faculty—those in temporary, contract, or other nonstandard employment arrangements—may face.

Contingent faculty described some advantages of their work arrangements such as flexibility to balance professional and personal responsibilities and the opportunity to work with students.

However, they also noted many disadvantages, including job uncertainty, untimely contract renewals, low pay, and limited career advancement opportunities. Such concerns were also reflected more broadly in data we analyzed on faculty compensation and job satisfaction.

How do administrators choose what type of faculty to employ?

School administrators cited a number of factors that affect their decisions about the type of faculty to employ. They include financial, institutional, and faculty and student needs, such as:

  • budgetary constraints,
  • enrollment changes and requirements for subject specialists,
  • current faculty preferences and career goals, and
  • students’ curriculum choices.

Figure Showing Factors Administrators Cited That May Affect Their Decisions about Faculty Makeup

We also learned that circumstances affecting the choice of contingent employment may vary from one individual to another. For example, a younger academic seeking a career in higher education may have very different goals and preferences from a retired professional desiring to teach part-time. Reasons for hiring certain types of faculty may also vary across different types of colleges and universities, based on factors such as geographic location or the need for faculty in certain specializations.

As a result, potential federal solutions to the challenges experienced by contingent faculty may have to take into account many different needs and viewpoints.

To learn more, check out our full report.

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Federal STEM Education Programs

higher educationEducation programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) play an important role in preparing students for careers in STEM fields and in enhancing the nation’s global competitiveness.

On National STEM Day, today’s WatchBlog explores the federal government’s role in supporting STEM education.

Programs range from early years to graduate learning  

Federal STEM programs can range from preschool programs to those at graduate schools. These programs have a variety of goals, such as preparing students for STEM coursework, providing postsecondary students with grants in STEM fields, and improving STEM teacher training. The federal government spent nearly $3 billion dollars on these programs in FY16.

Investments in STEM education

We found that, although federal investment in STEM education programs remained relatively stable between FYs 2010 and 2016, the actual number of programs declined from 209 to 163.

13 federal agencies administer these programs—including NASA, the National Science Foundation, USDA, DOD, and DOE. While these agencies reported that many of the same STEM education programs existed during this time period, there were also a number of program consolidations, creations, and terminations. Additionally, nearly all STEM education programs overlapped to some degree with at least one other program in FY16—that is, they offered similar services to similar groups in similar STEM fields to achieve similar objectives.

Improving the STEM education portfolio

We found that the Committee on STEM Education—an interagency body responsible for coordinating federal STEM education programs—has not fully met its responsibilities to assess the portfolio of STEM education programs as it is required to do. Specifically, the Committee has not reviewed or documented the performance assessments of these programs or reported on the participation rates of underrepresented groups. We recommended that it take these actions in order to improve federal STEM education programs. These steps could include sharing promising practices that agencies could use in designing or revising their programs. The Committee agreed with these actions and has made efforts toward implementing them. For example, the Committee established a cross-agency STEM Education Evaluation Working Group that is exploring the types of evaluations agencies are conducting, sharing best practices, and discussing potential solutions to common evaluation barriers.

To learn more about federal STEM education programs, read our report.

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You Have a Right to Your Medical Records

Photo Showing a Stethoscope and a Laptop ComputerIf you request a copy of your medical records, your healthcare provider has to give it to you. That’s the law. But there can be a gap between the law and the reality for many patients.

In this WatchBlog, we take a look at challenges faced by patients–and healthcare providers–concerning medical records, as well as where they can get information and help.

What you don’t know can hurt you

The first challenge for some patients is that they simply may not know that if they request a copy of their records from a healthcare provider, they’re not asking for a favor, they’re exercising a legal right. (HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, played a major role in establishing the right.)  In some cases, the providers themselves may be unaware of the legal requirements.

In addition, providers are allowed to charge a “reasonable, cost-based fee” for supplying medical records. Fees can vary widely.

Providing medical records can be costly and complex

Healthcare providers also face challenges in supplying medical records. They incur costs for allocation of staff time and other resources. Also, fulfilling requests for medical records has become more complex. They may be stored in multiple electronic record systems or may be a mix of paper and electronic records.

Patient portals—secure websites offered by individual providers that give patients access to their health information and medical records—have made sharing records easier. Patients’ increased ability to directly access information through the portals has reduced the number of record requests.

Figure Showing Provider and Vendor Process for Fulfilling Medical Record Requests

Where you can get information or file a complaint

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a website with resources for patients and healthcare providers. It offers:

  • Information about patients’ right to access medical records.
  • A portal for patients to file a complaint in the event they believe they are wrongly denied access.
  • Information for providers about complying with HIPAA.

To find out more about patient access to medical records, check out our report.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Carolyn Yocom at
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact
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GAO’s Contracting and National Security Acquisitions Team

GAO’s workforce is organized largely by subject area, with most employees working in 1 of 14 mission teams, many of which we have highlighted on the WatchBlog. Today we’ll be putting the spotlight on the Contracting and National Security Acquisitions (CNSA) team, dedicated to tracking the half a trillion dollars the federal government spends each year to buy goods and services.


CNSA reports cover how the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and other federal agencies use contracts and oversee contractors; design, budget for, and buy big ticket items—such as submarines, Coast Guard cutters, and space rockets; and protect sophisticated technologies critical to national security.

Our work on these issues relates in part to four areas on GAO’s High Risk list: DOD Contract Management, DOD Weapon Systems Acquisition, NASA Acquisition Management, and Ensuring the Protection of Critical Technologies.

CNSA Analyzes How Agencies Award and Manage Government Contracts

Our contracting work examines whether taxpayers are getting a good return on their investment when the government hires private contractors. We review contracts for purchasing goods, such as medical supplies for Veterans’ hospitals, and obtaining vital services, such as restoring electricity to hurricane-ravaged areas. Because DOD is responsible for the lion’s share of federal contracting dollars, we often focus on military contracting practices.

distribution of federal contract spending

In addition, we monitor government-wide contracting trends, including how well agencies encourage competition and take other steps to save money. We also look at who federal agencies award contracts to—including small businesses or minority- and women-owned firms.

CNSA Reviews National Security Acquisitions

Every year, we issue three reports on major acquisition programs at DOD, DHS, and NASA. Through concise, 1- or 2-page, graphic-rich snapshots, we provide a “quick look” at the cost, schedule, and performance of over one hundred weapon systems, space systems, and other substantial investments.

Listen to our podcast about the 2018 DOD Quick Look.


Navy Shipbuilding Plans: The Navy is embarking on an ambitious plan to increase the size of its fleet to the largest it has been in over 30 years, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. We issued a report looking back at the past decade of Navy shipbuilding. Leveraging our large body of work on troubled programs like the Ford Class nuclear aircraft carrier and the Littoral Combat Ship, this report shows how the Navy’s shipbuilding efforts have resulted in $11 billion in cost overruns, many years of schedule delays, and ships that do not perform as expected.

Watch our Cuppa GAO interview discussing some of the challenges and opportunities for the Navy to improve how it builds its ships.

Homeland Security Acquisition Plans: Our reports on U.S. Coast Guard acquisitions have revealed a short-sighted budget process that has resulted in a wave of near-term acquisitions that exceed available funding. The Coast Guard is scrambling to extend the service lives of some aging Medium Endurance Cutters and its one remaining polar ice breaker until newer ships are ready to replace them. We have made a number of recommendations in recent years to help the Coast Guard improve its acquisition planning.

U.S. Coast Guard's Polar Star and Healy icebreakers

Read more about  DHS’s major acquisitions in our blog.

Other National Security Acquisition Programs: Many CNSA reports inform Congress about the progress and challenges of other high-dollar defense programs, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—DOD’s costliest acquisition to date—and the expansive Ballistic Missile Defense System.

Listen to our podcast about Missile Defense.


Major NASA Projects: Our work on NASA’s major projects explores the space agency’s highly complex and expensive human space exploration programs. These programs include the Orion crew vehicle, the Space Launch System, and Exploration Ground Systems. We are also monitoring NASA’s Commercial Crew program, in which Boeing and SpaceX are competing to build rockets powerful enough to propel astronauts to the International Space Station, deep space, and eventually to Mars. We keep an eye on NASA’s unmanned programs as well, such as its cutting-edge and costly James Webb Space Telescope.

Listen to our podcast about NASA’s Major Projects.


CNSA Evaluates Government Investments in Critical Technologies

Science and Technology Investments: We  look at how national security agencies manage their investments in science and technology compared to best practices from private tech companies—such as encouraging innovation, using prototyping before starting development, and conducting detailed systems engineering to ensure that program goals are realistic, given available resources.

Protecting Critical Technologies: Our team also tracks efforts to protect technologies that are critical to U.S. security and military strategy. Critical technologies may be targets for theft, espionage, reverse engineering, or illegal export and are vulnerable to cyber-attack. Many technologies may be transferred through foreign investments in U.S. companies or sold to foreign allies.

Embedded Software and Information Technology Systems Are Pervasive in Weapon Systems (Represented via Fictitious Weapon System for Classification Reasons)

Listen to our podcast about weapon system cyber security.


The security of some critical technologies relies on a shrinking industrial base and suppliers that are under threat from a number of risk factors. For example, some of our critical technologies depend on rare earth minerals imported from other countries or microelectronics that must be manufactured only by trusted sources.

You can see these and more key issues by checking the “Government Operations,” “National Defense,” or “Space” boxes on this page.


In fiscal years 2017 through 2018, CNSA’s work saved taxpayers more than $47 billion. In addition, in 2018, agencies enacted 90 of our recommendations to improve their policies and practices, such as by making them more effective, efficient, or transparent.


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Filling out Those Federal Forms

Image of 1040 Forms- U.S. Individual Tax ReturnAmericans spend a lot of time providing information to federal agencies, whether via tax forms or benefit applications. Overall, for example, based on government-wide estimates, the public spent 9.8 billion hours responding to federal information collections in fiscal year 2015.

Many of those hours have been spent on critically important matters such as providing information needed to protect the public, administering public benefit programs, and sending information to federal agencies so they can fulfill their missions.

Still, that’s a lot of time and resources. Can it be pruned down?

The Paperwork Reduction Act seeks to minimize the public’s administrative burden and maximize the benefit from collecting information, whether on paper or online. Today’s WatchBlog takes a look at our recent report on how agencies have responded to some of the requirements of the Act.

Figure Showing Types of Information Included under the Paperwork Reduction Act

Estimating the Time and Cost of Collecting Information

How much is your time worth? Agencies try to calculate, in both time and dollars, how much of a burden information collection puts on the public, but sometimes their estimates have been way off the mark.

The burden calculation goes like this: Estimate how long it takes to provide the information or fill out the form. Estimate the wages of the person filling out the form. Multiply the estimated time by the estimated wage.

This formula is the basis for estimating the cost for all respondents over the course of a year.

Figure Showing Standard Formulas and Elements for Estimating Total annual Costs

However, we found that agencies did not always accurately calculate their time and cost estimates, and their own review processes did not catch math errors and inconsistencies. We found cases where the burden was

  • underestimated by as much as $270 million, and
  • overestimated by about 12 million hours.

We made recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget on how these estimates could be improved.

Finding Out What the Public Has to Say

We also took a look at how agencies find out what the public thinks about their efforts to reduce the administrative burden.

Who knows how long it takes to fill out a form better than the very people affected—individual taxpayers, small businesses, and Fortune 500 companies alike? The agencies we reviewed solicited public feedback on the burden hour estimates through notices in the Federal Register, as required by the Paperwork Reduction Act.

However, we found that some agencies did not include enough information in the notices about how they came up with their estimates. The notices did not give people enough information to determine whether these estimates were reasonable.

Figure Showing Screenshot of Internal Revenue Service 60-day Notice for the Schedule E Form: Supplemental Income and Loss Information Collection Request

We found that agencies generally consulted with the public about information collection in a variety of ways, including through federal advisory committee meetings, stakeholder meetings, and webinars.

However, we found few instances where agencies asked about their estimates specifically. We recommended that agencies directly ask the public about their estimates during existing agency outreach efforts.

To learn more about how agencies create time and cost estimates for collecting information, and our recommendations for improving these processes, check out our full report.


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Recidivism Among Prison Inmates with Serious Mental Illness

Photo Showing a Counseling FormAs of May 2017, the Federal Bureau of Prisons oversaw almost 188,000 inmates—and nearly 8,000 of them were considered to have a serious mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Research has shown that prison inmates with serious mental illness are more likely to return to prison (that is, they have a higher recidivism rate). These inmates may face particular challenges on their release from prison that contribute to the cycle of repeated incarceration. For example, in addition to finding housing and a job, they may also need to find mental health treatment.

So, are there strategies that can reduce the cycle of repeated incarceration among prison inmates with serious mental illness? Today’s WatchBlog explores.

Figure Showing Bureau of Prison's (BOP) Organization for Providing Mental Health Services

Federal guidance

Federal agencies, as well as criminal justice and mental health experts, have developed guidance for reducing recidivism among prison inmates with mental illness. This guidance includes:

  • Assessing risk. Individuals should be screened as early in the booking process as possible and throughout their involvement in the criminal justice system to detect substance abuse and mental health disorders. An individual’s risk of reoffending should also be assessed based on factors associated with recidivism—like criminal history, poor relationships with family, and antisocial personality traits.
  • Planning treatment. Treatment approaches should be tailored to address mental health and substance abuse needs in prison and after release. Examples include psychopharmacology (which uses medications to reduce depression, psychosis, or anxiety) and cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims to address dysfunctional thoughts, moods, or behavior through counseling.
  • Identifying post-release services. Correctional agencies and community treatment providers should help facilitate continuity of care as individuals leave prison—for example, by helping inmates apply for benefits like Medicaid or Social Security before their release.
  • Coordinating with community-based providers. Correctional agencies should share information from assessments and treatment programs with community-based mental health care providers to avoid gaps in care.

Table Showing Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Obligations for Mental Health Care Services to All Inmates (Including Inmates with Serious Mental Illness), Fiscal Year 2016

What works?

We looked at 14 studies of correctional or reentry programs—9 of which found statistically significant reductions in recidivism among prison inmates with mental illness.

These reductions generally involved programs that offered multiple support services, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, case management to coordinate services, and housing assistance.

To learn more, check out our full report.

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How Can Low-Income Renters Find Affordable Housing?

Photo of Building ConstructionLow-income renters often face difficulties finding housing they can afford. But a federal program—the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC)—helps encourage developing this type of housing. This tax credit program has helped finance about 50,000 affordable rental units annually. The IRS  administers the program along with state housing finance agencies.

But how much does it cost to build an affordable rental unit? Today’s WatchBlog explores.

How does the program work?

The program works by attracting private developers to build new or rehabilitate existing projects. Developers get funding for the projects by finding investors who can then claim tax credits for their financing. The private investments lower the debt burden for LIHTC project development, making it possible for project owners to offer lower, more affordable rents. The amount of the tax credit that investors receive depends largely on a project’s costs.

What does it cost to build affordable rental housing?

Costs for developing affordable rental housing vary widely across the United States. We analyzed the per-unit cost of LIHTC projects in selected locations as part of our recent study. We found that costs differ vastly among and within state locations:

  • Among state locations, the median per-unit cost for new construction projects was $218,000 but ranged from $126,000 in Texas to $326,000 in California.
  • Within each state location, costs could vary widely. The difference between the least and most expensive projects in Georgia was $104,000 per unit, while the cost range increased to $606,000 per unit in California.

Graph Showing Development Costs (per unit) for New Rental Housing Built with Funding That Included Tax Credits, Selected States and Cities, 2011-2015

Why do costs vary so much?

The LIHTC program gives states the flexibility to address local housing needs, where  conditions, such as land prices, construction type, and tenant characteristics, vary widely as well.

More specifically, we found that a number of characteristics help explain some of the cost variation. For example, controlling for other factors:

  • New construction projects had higher per-unit costs than rehabilitation projects
  • Larger projects (more than 100 units) had lower per-unit costs than smaller projects (fewer  than 37 units)
  • Projects in urban areas had higher per-unit costs than those in suburban areas
  • Projects serving seniors had lower per-unit costs (due to smaller residential square footage) than non-senior projects

Greater understanding of the factors that affect affordable housing costs  may help states better manage the expenses involved in developing affordable rental projects using the LIHTC program.

Check out our full report to learn more.

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NASA’s IT Management and Cybersecurity

photo of space shuttle, source: NASANASA depends heavily upon information technology (IT) to conduct its work. The agency spends at least $1.5 billion annually on IT investments that support its missions, including ground control systems for the International Space Station and space exploration programs.

Because NASA works with foreign space agencies, universities, and private companies to accomplish its mission, it must carefully manage and secure both IT systems and cybersecurity efforts. For years, NASA has faced challenges in doing this.

Today’s WatchBlog explores areas where the agency still has room to improve.

Leading IT management practices

NASA’s ability to manage IT and cybersecurity effectively is at risk because the agency has not fully implemented leading management practices. Such practices call for:

  • Comprehensive IT strategic plans. NASA’s current strategic plan falls short on describing and documenting how it will accomplish the plan’s strategies or explain how systems within or across NASA programs are interdependent.
  • Sufficient employees capable of managing the department’s systems. NASA does not regularly assess or report on progress made in planning for IT employees.
  • Effective boards, policies, and procedures to govern IT. Not all NASA board members attend meetings, and recently established governance boards lack charters. Furthermore, the oversight board needs to be informed about whether IT business investments are overdue for review or not performing well. Moreover, decentralized governance creates challenges at NASA. IT boards do not oversee IT for missions to Mars; another board reviews those projects when approving the mission. As a result, NASA’s Chief Information Officer, responsible for the entire agency’s IT, does not oversee all NASA systems.
  • A complete approach for managing cybersecurity risks. NASA hired a cybersecurity risk manager in April 2018 (2 years later than planned) but has not fully established an effective approach to managing agency-wide cybersecurity risk.

Can NASA address these problems?

We recommended 10 actions the agency could take, including, among other things:

  • developing a completely documented and updated IT strategic planning process
  • completing board charters to fully establish IT governance boards
  • establishing an agency-wide approach to managing cybersecurity risk

Until NASA leadership fully addresses these leading practices, its ability to ensure effective management of IT across the agency and manage cybersecurity risks across partnerships with commercial entities, federal agencies, and other countries will remain limited.

To learn more, check out our full report.

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How Prepared is the Air Force?

Photo of F-35A Lightning II AircraftAir Force readiness has declined steadily since the 1990s as its aircraft fleet has aged and become smaller. The Air Force is working to rebuild the readiness of its force but has also stated that it must grow significantly to meet future threats, which could take substantial resources.

We recently testified that as the Air Force grows, it must not overlook the health of its existing forces. Specifically, we identified a number of issues with how the Air Force manages its resources—especially its personnel and equipment—that it must resolve in order to be prepared for the future.

Today’s WatchBlog explores how the Air Force can get back on track. Listen to our podcast then read on for more.

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Repayment Options for Student Loans

The Department of Education provides billions of dollars in federal student loans for higher education through the Direct Loan program each year. However, as of September 2017, borrowers defaulted on $149 billion worth of federal student loan debt.

Since October 1st is the start of the annual college financial aid application season, we took a look at some options to repay federal student loans if you are going through financial hardship.

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