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Working for Change in Higher Education: The Abysmal State of Adjunct Teacher Pay

Adjunct professors are increasingly facing unfair and damaging teaching conditions. What you need to know about the reality of university teaching.

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The recent Chicago teachers’ strike provoked a great deal of thoughtful discussion on the topic of K-12 education and teaching conditions.

Important aspects of higher education, however, continue to be overlooked. In particular, the broader public is likely unaware of the unfair and even damaging teaching conditions adjunct or part-time professors are increasingly facing.

The average salary for a college professor is in the realm of just under $60,000. [1] Most full-time University professors teach around six courses a year while also engaging in a variety of scholarly research.  Full-time professors at community colleges and state colleges often teach 10 courses a year. Yet this only offers a limited vision of the condition of college educators.

Today, non-tenured, part-time instructors (adjuncts) comprise almost 70-percent of college and university faculties. And these teachers are paid very little. Until recently these educational laborers have been largely ignored. With newly organized projects such as the Adjunct Project, part-time college teachers are beginning to demand recognition of their plight, and how it impacts students.

In June 2012, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) released a report, “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members” [2] finding that the median adjuncts were paid for a standard three-credit college course was $2,700 in fall 2010. Based on responses of more than 10,000 part-time college educators, the report found that the median pay ranged from $2,235 at two-year colleges to $3,400 at four-year doctoral or research universities.

Adjuncts teaching at the community college and state college level in a state like Florida, for instance, make under $2,000 per class. This means that teaching eight classes a year would yield $16,000 annually for the most highly paid community or state college adjunct. Typically adjuncts have no benefits to speak of. This translates into a growing number of college professors who face severe economic hardship.

Many adjuncts comprise the growing number of impoverished graduate degree holders. As ABC News reported in May 2012, [3] the number of people possessing a PhD who received some kind of public assistance increased more than three-fold between 2007 and 2010, from 9,776 to 33,655. Nearly the same was true for those with master’s degrees: 101,682 in 2007 to 293,029 in 2010. In her article, “The Ph.D. Now Comes with Food Stamps” in the Chronicle for Higher Education, Stacey Patton speaks to adjunct faculty who rely on government assistance for economic survival. Among those are adjunct professor, Melissa Bruninga-Matteau, Ph.D.; Elliott Stegall, 51-year-old married father of two who teaches in the English department at Northwest Florida State College; and Kisha Hawkins-Sledge, a 35-year-old, single mother with a master’s degree in English.

As Sarah Kendzior points out in “ The closing of American academia,”[4] these poverty-level wages are downplayed by attitudes toward teaching that treat such pay “as a source of gratitude. Volunteerism is par for the course….” This attitude is explicitly deployed by at least some college administrators who regularly address adjuncts as if they are all volunteers working side-gigs rather than taking time to learn that adjuncting, for many, is their principle financial means. Many adjuncts teach the same or more courses as full-time faculty, but are paid a fraction. Indeed, this is the reason many adjuncts teach larger course loads than full-time faculty. Yet approximating full-time pay of say $60,000 would require an adjunct to teach 25 to 30 classes a year!

Some of those unfamiliar with the time-consuming work of college-level instruction ask why teaching two-dozen or more classes a year is problematic for instructors. But adjuncts teaching 6-course semester loads, for instance, find themselves struggling to meaningfully teach and engage upwards of 300 students, while also continuously developing the knowledge base from which they are expected to teach. Such conditions often result in bureaucratized teacher-student relations: more scantron tests, fewer writing assignments, less one-on-one communication, and generally fewer opportunities for teachers to engage students as individuals and address their unique developmental needs. All of this is on top of the grueling, untenable work schedules, and a salary that is a fraction of the income of normally-employed instructors.