Illustration by Jim Cooke

This will be the eighth and final installment of our series highlighting true stories from adjunct professors, the best-educated low-wage workers in America.

The collected thoughts of dozens of adjuncts have made clear some common themes: our colleges and universities are supported by a large class of teachers who lack job security, livable wages, or respect from their employers; students who pay huge prices to attend prestigious schools will likely spend much of their time being educated by these very low-paid professors; and, above all, the higher education industry—which resembles a Ponzi scheme in which the last generation of Ph.D.’s must feverishly educate the next even though there are not enough good jobs for any of them—is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

Buyers of advanced degrees beware. Students and professors lucky enough not to be adjuncts, please remember: a little solidarity goes a long way.

Stop lying

I live with a few family members and we pool our money to make ends meet. While I have the highest degree in my family, I earn the least amount of money at my job and I am the only person without benefits. I genuinely love and enjoy teaching. My students are some of the brightest parts of my days and weeks. I love English, and I am very passionate about my profession’s importance to educating the next generation of leaders and thinkers. But working as an adjunct does not provide me with the income needed to live well. I earn roughly $17000 a year at my job, so I have had to take on minimum wage retail jobs on the side in order to make enough to help support my family, which brings my average work week to between 60 and 70 hours per week.

I hope universities soon realize the crippling effects of their treatment to adjuncts. So much university money is spent on administrative and bureaucratic salaries—an entry level enrollment specialist job at my institution pays about 10k more per year with benefits than I earn with my advanced degree.

I also think we should stop lying to students in high school and undergraduate programs. I was consistently encouraged by my mentors and peers to earn an advanced degree because it would increase my competitive edge in the job market. They promised the jobs would be endless and that my MA degree would ensure steady, satisfying employment. But that was not the case—everything has been a struggle.

In New Jersey

I’m an adjunct professor at a small liberal arts college in New Jersey. Despite the ridiculous cost of living in this state, I make $2,250 for a two credit class. Despite the many hours spent prepping, grading, and designing courses (at least fifteen hours per class per week, so if I teach five classes, 75 hours a week, especially with grading. I’m also probably low-estimating; I’ve spent twenty hours in a week on a single class.), I make less than some of my students do in their work study positions. The biggest kick in the pants is that each student pays $3-4k per class. I don’t even make what one of my students pays to be taught by me.

I’m lucky though; my friends who adjunct at community colleges in NJ often only make $1,800 per class, a ridiculous sum.

In Florida

I’m very active in my local area (Tampa Bay) in organizing around adjunct issues and teach at 2 different colleges.

Last year I made 18k. At one school I make a little over $1700 per section and at the other I make $1900 per section. I’m currently teaching 5 sections. I am slated to be teaching 4 in the summer and 6 in the fall, as long as they don’t get cancelled for low enrollment. I had a semester in the past where I taught 7 sections (4 different subjects) at 3 schools and 5 different campuses. I was driving 200 miles 2 days a week. I have been working towards unionizing adjuncts at one of the schools I work at and I hear similar stories from all the other adjuncts I have spoken with.

Neither school I work at treats adjuncts fairly. Administration pay lip service towards wanting to pay us more (of course they never do) but don’t seem to realize that job instability, lack of benefits, lack of professional development, and private office space are all just as detrimental.

I am lucky that I don’t live in poverty because my husband has decent job and makes the majority of our family income. But if we were to split up I would certainly be living in poverty conditions. Even with my financial position being better than a lot of adjuncts I know, my life has still been very negatively impacted by my work as an adjunct.

I don’t get paid for the days that I have to miss class and have had to teach a day of classes in the midst of having a miscarriage. I have to miss pay when my kids are sick because I’m the primary care taker. My husband and I have a hard time planning things financially because we are never sure how much I will be making from semester to semester.

How things have changed

I was in college in California in the late 60s (yes, I am an old lefty activist). I attended public colleges/universities. In all my years as a student in higher education, I don’t think I had more than one adjunct professor. I took lots of classes. All my professors had offices, private offices. They were not crammed together sharing an office that looked like a typing pool. (Fortunately, the cadre of adjuncts where I teach are almost like family; we truly appreciate one another, share experiences, and learn from one another in an environment of rich discourse. I believe we are the exception.)

Some 60 percent of the classes taught at [my college in New Mexico] are taught by adjuncts. How is it possible that in my own lifetime college education has gone from stable professorial teaching assignments to a mish-mosh of adjunct-taught courses strung tenuously together into barely cohesive programs that are cheaply funded?

This saddens me terribly.

From a single father adjunct working two jobs

What is your quality of life?

When I am in the classroom or talking to my colleagues, it’s sublime. When I am grading papers at one in the morning after a pick-up gig because I have to gig as much as I can to fill the gaps, it feels awful. When my kid wants something, a better dinner, a new app, I have to run through the entire of our monthly budget to figure out if we can, for instance, order a pizza. I often can’t even afford to order a pizza.

And when I stare at my budget ledger and plan my month’s spending, I feel hopeless. I feel like a failure. I feel like I have no future. I feel like I’ve wasted my life trying to be earnest and idealistic. And some days I actually review my life insurance policy’s suicide clause - that money would eradicate “all of my daughter’s problems and she’d be better off with my sister and her husband.” That’s my inner monologue. But I know she’d rather eat sweet potatoes and quinoa yet again than lose me too - I could never hurt her that way, she’s already lost too much. And she is the only reason life was worth continuing after my partner died. So I keep fighting for our tiny family, even as my hope wanes.

“I am amazed”

I have been adjunct at different schools for 5 years. I have taught at [several universities in the Southwest]. All of them treat adjuncts terrible. Right now I am teaching for [university] online. If I do everything they ask of me I make about $6.50 per hour. Teaching two classes can easily take 36- 40 hours per week. Last year I almost starved to death. I sold so much stuff to live. Everything I had of value besides my house gone. I hate more than anything the way universities use professors. But I need the work, it’s better than nothing. They don’t always give me classes and there is unspoken rule not to say anything about these conditions. To me the answer is a union on the national level: adjuncts organize and strike. I am working towards a business so that I can quit being an adjunct but I will probably be teaching at least another year. If my school found out I said this they would throw me away like piece of trash. So please don’t tell them I am amazed at the University system. They are the worst discriminators and they shout out against it the loudest.


The English department at the university where I currently teach 4 classes (100 students) pays a flat rate of $2,500 per course before taxes. It is typical to get 4 classes in the fall semester, but only 2 or 3 in the Spring. Because of this I commonly work another (or two other) jobs simultaneously. This is difficult to find part-time employment from companies/businesses that are willing to work around my ever changing teaching schedule.

I have no employment during the summer months, I resort to temp work to keep my lights on; these jobs typically pay $10-11 an hour.

Full time/ Assistant professors at my university teach 3 classes and this is considered full time. I teach 4 classes and am considered part-time. I have no health insurance.

Last Fall I had to have emergency surgery, with no health insurance (I cannot even afford the cheapest Obamacare program) the hospital bill was in excess of $30,000, my earnings at 2 jobs for the 2015 fiscal year was $24,000...

I live in a studio apartment, I have given up meat altogether because I cannot afford it and live off of lentils and greek yogurt. I go no where other than work because, literally, I cannot afford gas to drive anywhere for leisure, let alone go to a bar for a (single) drink or see a movie, I am isolated from my friends and family because of my financial situation. I don’t have cable TV, I only buy my clothes at second hand stores.

I am only allowed to teach courses that the university requires of all students. These are MANDATORY classes for everyone, yet the university does not invest in FT faculty for these courses. If these courses are so important to the curriculum of the students then the university should invest in FULL TIME professors.

I am currently searching for work outside of academia because I cannot afford to keep living like this. Again, I am scheduled for bankruptcy but this will not cover the $175,000 in student loans I accrued during my graduate studies. My bankruptcy lawyer has informed me that if I can prove I cannot find a job related to my degree my loans can be forgiven. I am currently in the process of researching what kind of documentation is necessary for this to happen.

The difference a full time job offers

I am extremely grateful that I am one of the fortunate ones who landed a full time tenure-track position this fall, but I am having to leave North Carolina for it. At this new university, I will teach three classes each semester instead of four, and my salary will be over five times higher. But with estimates at about 50% - 70% of higher education instructors being adjuncts, this isn’t an issue that will simply disappear for me because I am no longer an adjunct. Adjuncts are financially unable to give everything they can to their students because of having to work multiple jobs, which effects the quality of education ALL of our colleges/universities are able to provide across the country. I myself have worked up to five jobs at once to get by and am incredibly thankful I will only have one position this fall. But while adjunct instructors are the majority in our higher education system, our country as a whole will suffer in terms of creating educated critical thinkers.

From an adjunct who joined a union

As a former high school English teacher, I believed in education unions deeply — I just didn’t think I could hope to be in one as an adjunct. Learning I was wrong felt like the sun pushing through the clouds.

That’s why, a couple years down the line, when a guy came to my classroom at another university closer to home where I’d picked up a class, and he asked me if I would support an upcoming vote to decide whether adjuncts at our school should be added to the faculty union, I said yes. I said yes when he asked me to come to a happy hour to meet some more of my contingent higher ed colleagues. I said yes to phone banking to get out the vote, and I said yes when my ballot arrived in the mail. Yes, we matter. Yes, we have rights. Yes, our expertise is valuable. And yes, together, we are powerful.

I don’t ever want to go back to that choked panicky feeling of running from class to class, barely holding it together, feeling guilty for being a bad teacher but feeling even more scared of admitting that I wasn’t doing okay. Never knowing how much I’d make next semester. Hoping my partner wouldn’t get sick because I couldn’t get her benefits. Wondering if anybody at the university would even notice if my family fell right off of the edge of the Earth. No one deserves to feel that way. We adjuncts provide the day to day labor that keeps universities running. We are on the front lines with America’s young people, and I believe that when one of us rises, we all rise. Collective bargaining is the answer to rectifying the gross injustices of the two-tier higher education system. That’s why I volunteer my time organizing adjuncts for my school’s union and for the new metro union just founded for adjuncts in my city. We’re getting stronger. Give us a chance and we’ll organize you, too!

Our sincere thanks go to the hundreds of adjunct professors who wrote in to share their stories. Everyone be nicer to them.


The full archives of our series on adjunct professors can be found here.