Illustration by Jim Cooke

America’s colleges and universities are out for the summer. For students, it’s a time to party. For the low-paid adjunct professors who make higher education function, it is a time to wonder whether they made a terrible mistake.

Adjunct professors have the honor of being the best-educated low-wage workers in America. We are publishing their true stories. These are the people who enable the existence of all those prestigious colleges.

The Scarlet Letter

I graduated with my MFA in 2008 and have been an adjunct instructor for 8 years. I am fortunate in that, I was given a three-quarter time position in 2012, so I do receive benefits now. I make 28,000 a year and work summers to boost my income. The department for whom I work has never, in the 8 years I have worked there, given a part–time employee a full-time position. It is not done.

As you know, to advance in a career in academia, one needs to take part in research. In my case, I am an art instructor and it is imperative that I produce work and exhibit nationally, if I want to find a full time position at another institution. However, because I don’t make enough money to live off of , I have to work a second job. This leaves me very little time to produce career advancing work.

I am also burdened with student debt that I will never be able to pay off. I have been in forbearance for several years now simply because I can not afford the payments, even on the income based repayment plan. I live a simple life, and yet I barely get by on my pathetic excuse for an income. My student loans are coming into repayment within the next month, and I have no idea what I’m going to do. I can’t pay them because even with a second job, I don’t make enough money.

As a three-quarter time adjunct, I am only allowed to teach 3 courses per semester. I have all but begged for 4 courses, but they will not give me the extra course. This would make a huge difference in my financial situation. To help make ends meet, I teach summer courses. This summer, I will be teaching clustered classes. For the first half of the day, I will teach painting 1,2, and 3 all at the same time and get paid for one class. The second half of the day, I will teach drawing 1,2,3 and mixed media all at the same time. While this is not fair to me as the instructor or the students taking the class, I am grateful for the extra income.

I now wear the label of “Adjunct” like The Scarlet Letter. Had I known this is where my useless degree would lead me, I would have never chosen this futile career.

Adjunct and new mother

I was pregnant with my second child when I was offered my first class [as an adjunct at an NYC-area school]. I was due to give birth the third week of school. Desperate for the opportunity to gain teaching experience I took the job and agreed that I would only cancel class for one week after my baby was born. Yes, that’s a one week maternity leave for a job that was paying me $3,000 for four months of really involved work. After my week was up, I had friends and family take turns coming to school with me so that I could nurse my newborn before and after class. When my child was old enough for daycare (a cost that almost exceeds my pay) I had to do the breast pump thing. By then, I was teaching three classes. Having no office and unwilling to pump in a bathroom, I asked the administration for a private place to pump and they offered me a storage closet (full of stuff). The classes were lecture heavy and for the most part I was left to develop my own syllabus so I was working day and night to juggle the workload. The prep time is enormous, so is the commute time. Each of my schools is an hour away. Factor gas and childcare and I’m almost at a negative balance. I am six years out of grad school at USC film school with school debt higher than many mortgages. At a certain point it feels like a scam...

I have become involved with the unionizing efforts at [my school]. The administration has fought the organizing attempts with ugly rigor. It’s really a slap in the face, we’re not asking for much. After toiling for 2 years and conferring with my husband, I’ve decided that I need to stop trying to make a living as an adjunct. Maybe I’ll continue teaching a class or two because I love teaching, but to make ends meet, well there’s always Walmart, right?!

How to find a good school

When someone asks me whether [X] is a good school to send their son or daughter, I don’t tell them to look at rankings (which are based on absurd criteria like what % of alumni donate), or ratings (which are often biased by trivial criteria like whether students approve of the school’s gym). I tell the parents to search online for the rate their school pays adjuncts. Then I ask if they think any smart adult would stand in front of a class at that rate for a semester. If that answer is no, the school is a waste of their money. They’ll pay $160,000 for a piece of paper.

The pay rate for adjuncts isn’t always below the poverty line. It varies by a ridiculous amount across schools. I’ve been an adjunct professor (it’s more often called a visiting lecturer) in [redacted] at Boston University ($5k per class), Wellesley College ($20k for 2 classes), and MIT ($17.5k for one class!?), and seen job postings for nearly every school in the area, so I have a good sense for this market. It’s true that the more expensive schools pay more, but not always. Simmons College (tuition $37,500 per year) advertises adjunct pay at $3,000 per class. Can you find *someone* with a PhD/ABD willing to work for that rate? Probably. But no decent, dedicated teacher accepts that rate unless they’re truly forced to.

Keep the customer satisfied

My most recent tax returns at age 55, after solid consistent and award-winning college teaching since 1991, show $37,243. I have no health insurance, tuition remission, retirement, reimbursements for materials/transportation/parking or any other incidental costs, professional development, sick leave, parental leave, or assurance of re-hire beyond the 3 month contract of each semester at any of my colleges. In other words, I subsidize my colleges by providing my own computer, paper, ink, telecommunications, etc. without any renumeration...

My Community College is delightful and inclusive, sensitive and supportive. I love teaching there. The private “non-profit” college that has employed me steadily since 1997 is another story. I, and my colleagues who as “adjuncts” outnumber the “full time faculty” by two to one, are routinely and systemically ignored and treated as invisible or slightly shameful slaves. The last time I had a grade dispute, when a student demanded an A instead of a B+, the advisor told me “Well, you know, you have to keep the customer satisfied”. I didn’t change the grade up, and never got another assignment in that department. Everyone at that college seems anxious as hell and constantly sucking up to whatever the currently perceived pyramid of power happens to be. The administrative stress trickles down to the faculty and to the students who are signing on to a ridiculous, obscene amount of debt to be there at all. The whole thing makes me sick at heart.

Good enough, but not good enough

Some stats: I’m an adjunct English instructor at four colleges in Southern California. I drive 380 miles a week between my four schools. This semester I teach at two schools each day, often getting up before dawn (5 am) to drive in rush hour traffic to be in class by 8 am. I have approx. 210 students (that is my max capacity; the true number now is less, as it is near the end of the semester and students drop for various reasons). I will grade approximately 1,000 essays this semester. (Again, this is the max I would grade in a semester if every student turned in every assignment).

I do not get paid for office hours.
I do not get paid to grade. Or lesson plan.
I do not get paid for my driving time.
I am not provided healthcare.
I always owe money on my taxes...

I grade during and between classes. I grade on weekends, at night after work, and sometimes before class starts when it is still dark out. I spend my breaks, which are unpaid because I am hourly, lesson planning, prepping, and designing my curriculum. I have to teach summer school to make ends meet. (And this is always a gamble in our currenty economy, so I always need at least three months of rent saved in case I’m not asked to work). I do this because I love my students, and honestly want to make a difference in their lives.

I also want to be treated fairly.

This semester I applied for seven full-time positions. I got three first round interviews—all at schools where I currently work. I did not get second round (“President”) interviews at any of them. The message? I’m good enough to work there, just not good enough to work there.

At the school’s mercy

I was an adjunct professor at [a community college in Maryland]. During my time there, I barely made more than $18,000 a year. We had no benefits, no sick time, and our course load was based entirely on what the department chose to gave us. Once the affordable care act was instituted, our credit hours were capped so they would not have to provide us health care. We were completely at their mercy...

When I finally reached critical mass, I began two projects simultaneously. I began talking to other adjuncts about unionizing as adjuncts had not seen a raise in over five years, and despite being the wealthiest county in Maryland, our college paid the lowest wages to its adjuncts. I also began to desperately search for other work away from higher education. As incompatible as those two ideas were, they shared the same root. Lying to my students about the importance of college was becoming harder and harder for me... Now I work for the [city government]. I still haven’t made over $30,000, and I still miss teaching college students, but at least I’m working somewhere with health care.

At the bottom

For all the praise and positive feedback I’ve received during my time in academia, at the end of the day, we live in a capitalist society, and when it comes to down to it, you can tell, to some extent, where you stand in that society as a matter of dollars and cents. The reality is, I’m at the bottom. I made as much money delivering pizzas in high school as I make right now teaching college students, many of whom plan themselves to go on to be educators. After I leave academia, or once I receive a tenure-track job that grants me the privilege of being honest about these matters in a public way, I dream of blowing the whistle on just how corrupt academia has become, how incredibly different the reality of it is than what most parents think they’re buying when they take out enormous loans to pay for their kids’ education. But then again, I’m also fearful that such an expose would fall on deaf ears, because I worry that this is the system that a lot of people in the U.S. in positions of power want—your most well-educated and therefore probably most vocal critics struggling to make ends meet and in fact being mocked by their peers, superiors, and even their clients for having the audacity to think that they could have contributed something to society besides sales figures or marketing strategies...

In your post you also asked about what I, as an adjunct, think should be done. The first most obvious thing is that universities should be making it a goal to eliminate adjunct labor, not encourage it. At least in my state, I know that they have the means to do this because I collect unemployment every summer! Wouldn’t it be more efficient to have me teach more using that money or (god forbid!) give me a course release so I could do more research or help with curriculum development? The CSUN system is literally robbing Peter to pay Paul when they ask taxpayers to subsidize the livelihood of the employees who do most of their teaching. It’s a crooked system led by a majority of administrators who frankly look at colleges not as institutions of higher learning but moneymaking schemes who are downright resentful of educators who might imagine that college could do anything more meaningful than create wealth. (Many of the administrators are failed academics themselves.) I honestly don’t know what we’re paying these people for when it seems like an obvious marketing strategy for an up-and-coming university could be that it does not use adjunct labor, that all of its faculty are on the tenure-track and therefore healthier, happier, and more committed to their students.


All of our true stories from adjunct professors can be found here.