Illustration by Jim Cooke

Before you go into great debt to send your kid to college, you should hear from the low-paid, ill-treated workers who will actually be educating them: adjunct professors. They are sharing their stories with us. Their view is much different from the one you’ll find in the college brochure.

Adjunct professors—the closest point of contact that many students have with their brand-name universities—have the distinction of being the most highly educated low-wage workers in America. The way they are treated is bad for them, and equally bad for students. They’re not afraid to tell you why.

The myth of the “part time” adjunct

One adjunct instructor sent us findings from a survey she and a colleague had completed of more than 1,200 community college adjuncts in the Southwest. Two points crystallize the adjunct experience:

In the 10 community colleges we studied, 77% of the total instructional workforce are part-time faculty, and these adjuncts teach approximately 65% of the courses offered. Clearly, they are a massive presence on campus. However, as a collective and as individuals, they have very little input into decisions that are made about their courses, teaching, professional development opportunities, and other organizational policies and practices. As one adjunct told me, “With approx 80% of classes being taught by adjuncts, it is ridiculous that we are never consulted on new policy decisions in our departments... Overall there is a profound insecurity in the adjunct employment situation which is further heightened by our substandard pay and lack of tangible benefits such as health insurance. I would not expect the district to necessarily pay for my insurance, but I would very much appreciate the opportunity to buy into the health coverage.”

I was interested in the extent to which adjuncts are voluntarily in a part-time role (e.g., retirees just teaching one-off courses, or a full-time lawyer teaching on the side for fun). So in our study, we asked, “What is your level of interest in becoming full-time faculty at your current college or another postsecondary institution?” Only 20% (n=219) said they were not at all interested and prefer part-time teaching. 13% (n=139) said they weren’t currently interested, but either were in the past or might be in the future. 20% (n=220) said they were somewhat interested, and 47% (n=516) said they were very interested. So it does seem as though many adjuncts are involuntarily part-time. We also found that than half were currently employed in a full-time career outside of academia, and adjuncting was at least somewhat of an important source of income for more than 90%.

Academic apartheid

I am an adjunct who earns less than $20,000 for teaching five courses over three semesters while full-time people in my department make two, three, four times that amount for teaching the same workload. I call it academic apartheid.

I recently found out because I am an adjunct I can’t walk in the commencement procession. College and universities are elitists. They are the first to criticize government and business for mistreating people but they do it to us. They are Walmart.

My other job is a freelance writer and neighborhood babysitter to make ends meet. I have been adjuncting for 10 years, mostly at one school. I have tried to find other work but once places see you with the Scarlet A they can’t get passed that demarcation and don’t hire you for full-time work.

The real question is how much do schools spend on instruction? You can’t find those numbers at most schools because they are ashamed to list them. They spend more on facilities and administration. Why do students go to school? To learn, to be taught, not to attend sports events and be regulated.

If a school charges $60,000 a year, how they can possibly justify not paying someone a living wage?

Adjunct schedules are hellish

In addition to the class I must teach as a fellow, I adjunct 2 classes. This is not unusual in my PhD program, and I know graduates of my program that taught as many as 4 classes a semester in addition to their PhD work. I thus teach 3 classes a semester while also going to school full-time, so I have two full-time jobs (to say nothing of the two research assistant jobs I have and the committees I serve on in my spare time). Keep in mind though that this guarantees me no summer income, and I have to find work over the summer outside of teaching (since there are few French classes offered during summer session, and French is the subject I teach). I have over 70 students this semester, which is significant when you consider I am an adjunct in my role and thus have no set office hours, no space other than a shared adjunct office full of people from various departments, and no guarantee that I will be teaching these students in future semesters. While I have health insurance as I am a student, once I complete my PhD, if I am unable to find a lecturer position or tenure track position (both of which include benefits and a set appointment), I would likely have to adjunct around 5 classes per semester in order to make ends meet in NYC. Compare this to most tenure track assistant professor jobs offered to newly graduated PhDs: most of these gigs require only two classes per semester and include benefits as well as a salary. Adjuncts would have to teach more than 2 times that amount to make less money and have no guarantee of future appointments.

Adjunct schedules are hellish, and state regulations aren’t helping either

I’m an adjunct working for a Junior College and a University in the South. My combined income is just over 20K a year. I’m told state regulations put limits on how many classes I can teach at each university so I have to teach at more than one place, and I am more than likely going to start teaching at a third college, soon...

I teach 2 classes per school, which is not much, which is also why I’m teaching at more than one place (4 classes total). Down here in the South, we’re spread out so there’s a lot of driving between. I have to drive at least an hour between the two schools, for example. This creates more problems in scheduling, finding more work, etc. I counted recently and I spend 6 hours on the road a week driving to and from one institution. (I’m certain this can’t be commonplace...I mean it just can’t)...So count teaching time, grading time, driving time, and class-making I might have to do (most of this is done during the summer, for me anyway). Oh, and half of these classes are night classes, I’m usually getting home after 10PM, my wife is already asleep. I don’t see my wife often, maybe 1-2 nights a week depending on schedules, and weekends. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining too much, here, honestly. I like my work, I don’t feel overworked or anything (Hell, I’d like to teach a couple more classes, more advanced classes if anything), my hours are kind of miserable, but most mornings are free (when I don’t have a retail job as well.)

In my view, the worst thing about teaching adjunct is the summer time. I have no work. I have no income. I start working at retail jobs to make SOMETHING to fill in the gap, but I am losing money for 3-4 months out of the year because the colleges do not start paying until late September, early October. Most institutions will have fewer classes and offer them to full-timers first, so there’s virtually no opportunity for me to teach summer classes, OR I’m at my limit of how many classes I’ve taught in a school year and legally unable to teach anymore.

Adjunct schedules are hellish, and it’s not helping students

I know many adjuncts—usually those with kids to support—working six or seven courses per semester. Because there are a lot of universities in the DC area, generally it is easy for an adjunct to find jobs at a couple different universities. Many state systems and universities impose a limit on how many classes an adjunct can take—at George Mason an adjunct can only teach three courses; in the Maryland community college system I think the limit is four—so those adjuncts in most desperate need usually cross state lines between DC, Virginia, and Maryland to eke out a living. Lots of adjuncts, it’s probably fair to say, spend a lot of time commuting between different universities.

Sometimes worse than the low pay is the lack of respect you get as an adjunct. After working your ass off for a Masters or PhD, you move to this other realm of academia where the full-time people almost don’t even want to look at you. You’re not invited to faculty meetings and your office space is generally (this was the case at George Mason) a big shared room among dozens of other adjuncts. At George Mason a veteran adjunct told me they referred to it as “the factory.” I didn’t even have a place to lock up my stuff at campus, and the only parking available to me (which I paid $200 a semester for) was more than a mile away from my classroom.

It’s also very difficult to plan classes pre-semester because things change so quickly. For example, I was told I was teaching an upper-level English course to be designed specifically for Natural Science majors and then the first day of class I realized all my students were studying IT and cyber security, which meant I had to essentially throw out all the readings I had spent (unpaid) weeks collecting. In large departments, like the English department at George Mason, the administrators try to create cookie-cutter courses as much as possible, as it’s the only way to maintain consistency among an enormous staff you’ve hardly vetted...

One of the things that is rarely discussed in regards to this issue, is that the quality of higher education has definitely suffered. Though many adjuncts are very good teachers, you can only offer so much when you are over-worked and underpaid. The frustration I felt toward the university made its way into the classroom. When I was grading papers, I had to remind myself to give less effort to each student—there simply wasn’t enough time in the day to give them the attention they needed.

There’s a lot that can be done to change all of this, though many issues that affect adjuncts are the same that affect workers across all industries. University presidents and coaches are millionaires. Adjuncts, cafeteria workers, and maintenance staff work poverty wages. Money saved by reducing quality is redirected to building the brand.

Adjunct schedules are hellish online, too

[Because] I teach online only now, I am on-call virtually 24/7/365. The universities claim that we only need to log-in 4x/week but emails must be answered within 24 hours, and calls are preferred. Given all work is online, I regularly have 40 discussion posts (think essay exam answers) and 40 short (3-4 page) papers every week in the graduate program and between 30 – 40 in the undergraduate program (depending on enrollment). So in addition to being “present” in the courserooms (i.e. responding [writing] responses to at least 80% of students – yes, they check), I also have 120 assignments to grade every week, not counting occasional longer papers (undergraduate) or final papers (graduate). Then in the graduate program, I am also STRONGLY encouraged to mentor several dissertation students which means reading 50 – 60 pages of formative work each week, in addition to keeping track of their progress, helping them navigate complications, and generally keeping them motivated. I also have a “course” for the dissertation students which is meant to mimic a graduate seminar, but it has its own “presence” requirements and if I fail to respond to a comment or post a weekly announcement (in addition to all of the “out-of-course” dissertation work), that is reported to supervisors...

What is your quality of life?
What’s a life? I have three children and even though I’m “a doctor,” I have over the past decade needed SNAP, Medicaid, HEAP and to tell my kids they can’t do this or we can’t afford that. My mother is in failing health but lives about 350 miles away. I cannot visit her with any regularity. I should be SO lucky because I can take my work with me wherever which is true … technically. But with my fluctuating income, our second (paid off) 11 yo car had to be taken off the road because we couldn’t afford a repair to keep it running. I have not been on a vacation for over 10 years.

The situation in Chicago

A starting salary at the City College of Chicago is $525 a credit hour, which means if you have a full course load (12 hours) your yearly salary before taxes is $12,600. This assumes, however, that you will be offered a full course load, that none of your classes gets cancelled, and that no full time faculty member decides they would like to teach your class. If your class gets cancelled, or taken by a full time faculty member, you receive nothing, despite the fact that classes often aren’t cancelled until right before they start (and after you’ve done hours of work preparing your syllabus and first lecture).

I’ve worked for the City College of Chicago for 7 years, and have a terminal degree, which means that I now make $890 a credit hour (thanks to the union). If I teach a full course load I will make $21,360 a year before taxes. I do not pay social security, but rather have a state sponsored pension plan, which means that if our governor gets his way, I may have nothing by the time I retire (I’m 32 now). No social security and no pension.

I have two part time jobs at school (instructor and “teaching assistant”) which means I’m at school 40 + hours a week. I get paid $15/ hour with a maximum of 25 hours for my this job, which is essentially supervising and helping students. It allows me to survive but I don’t get benefits, and the school is fighting with the union to prevent anyone from holding more than one type of job (to avoid having to pay benefits in the future).

Between both jobs, I make enough to survive, but not to save anything. I would not be able to survive without public assistance if I had children. My job demands a degree in higher education and I have $50,000 in debt, that because of my income based repayment plan, I don’t even fully pay back the interest that is accruing, let alone my principle.

The City College system is run by a number of people who have never worked in higher education, appointed by Rahm Emanuel. The chancellor makes $250,000 and the president of my school received a raise a few years ago that is bigger than what I make in a year. All of this is public record.

The situation in Texas

When I was living in FL, I was offered an adjunct position that paid $1100 per class (adjunct work pays very poorly in Florida). I sat down and actually did the math. Considering the time put into grading and class prep, the ‘real’ worked out to around $3.35 per hr. Needless to say, I was so disheartened I told them no. I am currently working as an adjunct in the Dallas Community College district where I make around $1000 dollars per month when I am working. There most likely will be no Summer work this year. The pay is better, but even Dallas has some weird rules that make things miserable. For example, I had to wait almost 8 wks. before getting the first check of the semester.

In Texas, $1000 per month is just enough to net you no government benefits. So, my family has no health insurance. We don’t even qualify for SNAP benefits under their rules. We are just ‘too’ rich.

My wife is a nurse who makes around $12 per hour. Now, tell me how we are supposed to survive?

How academic dreams die

I teach 11 classes per fiscal year (two summer courses, four fall, five spring), which brings my gross yearly income to around $30,000. Summer pay is funky, since it’s based per student, up to eight students in a class. Over eight students, and it reverts to the flat rate of $2,700. I receive no medical benefits through my employer, but due to my income level, I don’t qualify for monetary healthcare assistance through the ACA. I pay my own monthly premium therefore of about $110 for the most basic healthcare plan with the widest network breadth I can manage.

I live in a right-to-work state, so unionizing adjuncts or threatening strikes is pretty much off the table. My university has recognized the financial problems adjuncts face, to an extent, and the administration is in talks with us to subsidize healthcare expenses, which is promising.

Since I carry such a heavy course load, I teach more than 100 students per semester during the academic year. This means that grading, lesson planning and other administrative work follow me home every night of the week. I’m not working 80+ hours per week as I did in graduate school, but it’s not uncommon to put in 60+. Moreso during finals and midterms time. Such a load has killed any hopes I had of engaging in meaningful research after completing my dissertation, since once I’m finished prepping for tomorrow, I’m either too tired or too disgusted to to find time for academic work. I’m more or less resigned to knowing that my lone scholarly contribution to my discipline will be a PhD thesis available only to those with a .edu email address, and by now it’s probably already been supplanted by fresher criticism.

Thanks to all the adjuncts who wrote in to share their stories. The full archives of this series can be found here.