Labor of Love or Cheap Labor? The Plight of Adjunct Professors


It’s a good thing that few entering academia expect to earn huge salaries and become incredibly wealthy because professorial jobs don’t usually come with rock star pay and benefits. Yet most newly graduated academics, after often spending nearly a decade in college, have the much more reasonable expectation of being able to earn a salary commensurate with their expertise or at least one that allows them to afford basic expenses like housing, food, and healthcare. Unfortunately, it’s increasingly common for even this very basic expectation not to be met.

Today, the majority of Ph.D. grads will find themselves working as adjunct faculty, not full-time professors. The shift towards adjuncts, who now make up almost 75% of instructional faculty, is perhaps one of the largest and most significant in the history of higher education, but so far, it doesn’t necessarily seem to be a change born out of a desire to improve education, but rather than to cut costs, as adjuncts are very often not particularly well-paid nor well-treated. How bad is it? Most adjuncts earn just $25,000 a year, less than half the average of $56,288 a new, full-time assistant professor will bring in according to the The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

Yet in a trend reflective of our larger economic shifts, many are more than willing to take on these low-pay, low-prestige positions to be able to pursue a career that they love in a subject they’re passionate about teaching. And while this is certainly an opportunity, it’s clear that those who are benefiting most aren’t adjuncts at all (nor the students they teach, in truth), but universities who have replaced more expensive full-time faculty with those who can be paid less, treated poorly, and quickly fired if necessary. While it’s yet to be seen if this trend has long-term staying power, what is clear is that colleges can no longer ignore the human impact of cutting back on tenured, full-time faculty.

The Changing Face of Higher Education

In 1969, 78% of faculty at America’s colleges and universities were tenure-track professors, with the rest having adjunct or part-time status, according to data from the Pullias Center for Higher Education. Today, those numbers are flipped, with adjuncts making up nearly three-quarters of instructional staff and tenure becoming so rare it’s almost mythical: just a third of professors have tenure or are on the tenure track. What spurred on such a massive movement towards hiring adjuncts instead of full-time, tenure-track professors?

The reasons for the shift are, like many things today, largely economic. As state and federal funding for higher education has declined, schools have looked for ways to trim budgets however they can. Given that some schools have seen budget cuts of 20% or more from state sources, it’s not hard to understand why they’ve moved towards hiring instructors who they can pay less, don’t have to offer benefits, and can easily let go when they need to tighten the belt. This flexibility means that colleges can quickly fill vacancies and respond to shifts in student demand, ensuring that they are not providing too many or too few courses in a given semester.

These same economic concerns have also been behind the drop off in tenure track positions. Tenured professors, while providing quality education and research, are expensive to maintain, and many colleges have favored putting the money they save by hiring part-time faculty towards enhancements and services on campus that can draw in greater numbers of students and make them more competitive in the higher education sphere.

The Adjunct Plight

While hiring greater numbers of adjuncts might make economic sense for universities, it hasn’t gone without some serious, often warranted, criticism. That’s because adjuncts, as a temporary workforce, haven’t been treated especially well by the universities who employ them. While there are exceptions, most adjuncts are faced with pretty abysmal working conditions causing this once invisible campus group to become a serious point of contention among many worried about the state of higher education.

Though some might dismiss adjunct work as part-time and therefore less stressful than that done by full-time, tenured professors, that isn’t the reality for most adjuncts, at least not if they want to make a living wage. A survey by the Center for the Future of Higher Education found that 54% were teaching at multiple institutions, often because work at one school wasn’t enough to pay the bills. While most only teach at two schools, it’s not unheard of for adjuncts to take on work at three or even four schools within a single semester, leading to some serious hours commuting from campus to campus.

This commute can add not only additional time but also costs to each work week, and with one third of adjuncts making less than $2,987 per class, commuting costs can quickly put a strain on adjunct income, which has lagged behind inflation for almost two decades.

This poor pay, about $25,000 a year on average, has left many relying on public assistance to make ends meet. Since 2007, the number of Americans with a master’s degree or higher who use public assistance programs has doubled, and it’s no secret that many of these downtrodden by highly educated individuals work as adjuncts, barely eking out the $19,000 a year that puts them below the poverty line for an individual. Add to that a lack of health care and retirement benefits due to their part-time status and adjuncts are actually worse off than university staff that perform jobs that require nothing more than a high school education.

Pam Gilchrist and her husband both worked as adjuncts at several universities for more than a decade before moving on. “We jokingly called it ‘a paid hobby.’ I love to teach. Unfortunately, I simply couldn’t make a living serving as an adjunct.”

Even worse, what work adjuncts do find is hardly stable and most don’t know where or what classes they’ll be teaching until right before the semester begins, if at all. The Center for the Future of Higher Education survey also revealed that most adjuncts, 33%, are given less than three weeks to prepare to teach a course and 17% may even find out with just two weeks to go until the semester begins. With no long term contracts, even those who’ve returned to a campus year after year to teach courses can very suddenly, and without any warning or recourse, find themselves out of a job.

Things don’t get much better for adjuncts during the school year. While some campuses are welcoming and supporting to their adjunct faculty, they may be in the minority. Ninety-four percent of adjuncts report that they get no campus or departmental orientation when starting a school year, despite a whopping 50% being new to the school. Professional development, institutional support, and even access to basic resources like an office, copy machine, campus computers, and library services is often hard for adjuncts to come by.

Why the poor treatment if these workers are so critical to university education? The reality is that as part-time workers, adjuncts are easy to mistreat and exploit. They’re not unionized, don’t have the same rights as full-time faculty, and since little investment has been made in their training and development, they’re easy to replace with new, eager adjuncts fresh out of grad school.

Change on the Horizon?

While adjuncts by and large are often still mistreated by universities and colleges, the tide may be shifting in their favor as public criticism and the activism of adjuncts and their full-time faculty allies has brought ever greater attention to the issue.

At many campuses across the U.S., this has resulted in efforts to unionize adjuncts in order to better advocate for their issues. While a long way from the unionization riots that rocked the nation at the beginning of the 20th century, today’s adjuncts hardly have an easy road in trying to unionize. Several adjuncts at Chicago’s East-West University found this out firsthand when they were denied contract renewal after leading efforts to unionize part-time faculty members there just last year.

While the treatment of these individuals might seem like more of the same for adjuncts, the public reaction shows that tides may be turning. The school saw incredible criticism from faculty, the community, and even the American Association of University Professors who said the actions “set a new low in managerial practice.” It is perhaps a sign of change that these adjuncts reached an agreement with the school to provide back pay and new job protections, as well as publicly posted notices telling faculty and employees that they will not face dismissal for supporting unions.

Unionization efforts may not be easy, but they may help provide many of the protections adjuncts need to ensure they’re given fair working conditions. Already, adjuncts have successfully unionized at several schools in the U.S., including George Washington University, where they’ve worked with SEIU Local 500 to negotiate three contracts which secure regular raises, give greater job security, and provide adjuncts with funds for professional development. At nearby American University and Montgomery College, adjuncts are in the process of unionizing and are hammering out their first contracts this year. Similar movements can be found all over the U.S., which could be the next big step in adjuncts securing better workplace treatment.

Of course, these changes don’t mean that everything is rosy for adjuncts going forward. In 2014, the Affordable Care Act will mandate that schools provide all of their employees working 30 hours or more with health care. This has meant that many adjuncts will be eligible to receive benefits from their employers if they meet this hourly requirement in a given semester. It sounds good, but for many it may not come to pass. In response to the new requirement, many schools are cutting adjunct hours to ensure that none of their contingent employees with fall within the guidelines, saying they can’t afford to pay for these benefits for their contingent faculty.

So far, only a few colleges have resorted to cutbacks in response to ACA, but as the new law goes into full effect, it remains to be seen how other, even some larger schools, react to the increased costs of keeping adjunct faculty on board.

Where to Find Support

While much of this sounds pretty negative, adjuncts aren’t without support. There are a wide range of groups that help advocate for adjunct issues, educate the public about their mistreatment, and even help them get the respect and treatment they deserve from colleges and universities. Here are just a few worth checking out.

The Adjunct Project: The Chronicle of Higher Education has put together this online community as a way of uniting adjuncts. You can submit information about your working conditions, salary, and benefits to see how they compare with others around the nation, find advice from other adjuncts, and read blog articles on the blog written by adjuncts for adjuncts.

New Faculty Majority: You can become a member of this organization to help educate, advocate, and push forward legislation that protects adjunct faculty members. Through the site, you can connect with other adjuncts to get information about working together to improve working conditions. Some adjuncts may also be able to take advantage of NFM’s health insurance program and other support programs.

Adjunct Nation: Formerly print magazine Adjunct Advocate, this online news site will help keep adjuncts working in North America and Europe up to date on what’s happening. Not only does it provide news, there are also job listings and job tools to help you on campus.

American Federation of Teachers: This nationwide union of teachers doesn’t just help in efforts to protect K-12 educators; in recent years they’ve also worked to protect the interests of adjunct teachers, sometimes acting as a go-between for adjuncts and government organizations. Learn more about what they do and how they help support adjuncts on their site.

Service Employees International Union: SEIU has helped many groups of adjuncts to unionize and supports those who are currently working on unionization efforts. Their website is a great place to learn about the benefits unions can offer and to keep up with the latest union news related to adjuncts.

These are just a few of the larger organizations working to help adjuncts get the attention and help they need and deserve. Often, through these larger groups, you can find out about local organizations and meet-ups that can help you find support and advocate for change on a local level.

Sticking It Out

It may be quite some time before things really improve for adjuncts working at colleges and universities. In the meantime, however, there are things you can do to protect yourself, advance your career, and even find greater happiness and satisfaction on the job.

  • View universities as clients. Dr. Christina McCale, an adjunct for more than 13 years and author of Waiting for Change, says that adjuncts need to consider their work with universities of that between a contractor and a client, not employee and employer. “I’ve found that peers who slip into the ‘employer’ mentality often get themselves in trouble.” Instead, she says to remind yourself that the terms of your relationship only go as far as your contract dictates, and long term work isn’t guaranteed.
  • Diversify Adjunct work can be unstable, but you can reduce the impact this has on your career and financial well-being by diversifying your jobs. Working for just one school can be convenient, but as McCale reminds, it leaves you at the mercy of that school should a program be cut or a new dean decide to make changes. Instead, branch out and find opportunities in more than one location.
  • Streamline. Since many adjuncts have to balance several courses between different campuses, streamlining and organization are absolutely essential. McCale recommends thinking of ways to use the same texts, similar syllabi, or course ideas.
  • Have realistic expectations. Being an adjunct is rarely the pathway to a full-time position in academia these days. Adjuncts need to learn to have realistic expectations of what they’ll get out of their work and what it can offer. “The reality is, we may never see another golden age of academia,” says McCale. “Too many things have changed.” As a result, adjuncts need to prepare themselves to pursue another career, even if that wasn’t their plan. “Pining away, wishing and hoping for a tenure track position may just set you up for frustration, which will inevitably bleed over into the
    classroom,” she says.
  • Find support. Being an adjunct can be frustrating and demoralizing at times, but there are plenty of places to look for support and guidance. Adjuncts are likely only one of many in the same situation as their schools, so make time to meet with others to discuss your situation, ways to improve it, or just commiserate over lunch.
  • Network. Just because you’re not at the top of the pecking order doesn’t mean that you can’t use your work to make connections that help you to advance. Some of these connections might even come from an unlikely source: students. “The biggest mistake I made was not doing a better job of keeping in touch with my students and their careers,” McCale says. “These people can become a golden Rolodex for you in the future.”
  • Get really good at financial management. Not making much money is hard enough, so don’t make it harder on yourself. Learn to manage money and take advantage of free resources and benefits offered to you on your college campus. You may qualify for free bus passes, some kinds of retirement plans, and even discounts at local businesses, all of which can add up.
  • Consider a job in industry. For many, a career solely as an adjunct just isn’t feasible. This may mean leveraging your expertise in other areas related to your Ph.D. McCale recommends considering whether your degree qualifies you for speaking engagements, freelance contracts or consulting, as these can be ways to help balance your academic pursuits with adding more income and experience.
  • Be present on campus. While it might be hard for those teaching at several schools, being present on campus and playing an active role can help give you a bit more job security. “Ask for an office. Do your marketing. Be a part of the department,” says Eric Chen, a professor of business administration and former adjunct. “Being present is a way to tell the department that you’d like to stay. Often, department chairs, knowing what adjuncts are paid, don’t bother to ask adjuncts to participate in department activities, thinking that participation would be a terrible imposition.” Chen says you shouldn’t see it that way, however, but instead as a chance to become a valued member of your school, not just a temporary worker.
  • Teach courses that others won’t teach. Sometimes it pays to do the campus dirty work, if you’re looking stick around that is. Chen says it’s often easier to get adjunct appointments to teach courses with poor student reviews. “These are the ‘problem’ courses. No faculty member wants poor reviews.” But he sees this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, and so should you. “I believe that developing a reputation for being able to turn courses around or in teaching “difficult” courses helped me get a full-time position.”
  • Create value. Ultimately, you want to be seen as a source of value no matter where you’re teaching. This will help you get renewed contracts, prove your worth, and may even help you later on down the road. “One of the ways that I created value as an adjunct was to help students get jobs. When you create value, you’re much more likely to get courses to teach if they’re available,” says Chen.
  • Consider going digital. Commuting from campus to campus can be stressful and expensive, but new technology is opening up many more opportunities for adjuncts in the online sphere. In fact, a recent study found that online adjuncts make similar salaries to their in-class peers, earning about $30,000 a yearwithout the stress of going from campus to campus.

It’s possible that higher education will never again embrace full-time, tenured positions. Whether or not that’s a good thing is contingent on how universities choose to treat those who are taking the place of those full-time professors: adjuncts. It could be years before any real headway is made in securing benefits, pay, and working environment that is commensurate with the experience and education of these individuals, but one thing is becoming very clear: if changes aren’t made, it’s not just adjuncts who’ll be harmed. After all, the quality of education a university offers can only be as good as the quality of educators it’s willing to pay to do the job.

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