How ‘Adjunct’ Professors Are Exploited

While some “star” professors at major universities are very well compensated and college football coaches can make millions of dollars a year, “adjunct” professors are exploited as cheap labor, often needing other jobs and food stamps to survive, notes Laura Finley.

By Laura Finley

The workers’ rights movement has exploded in the last few years, with fast food, agricultural and other workers staging strikes and other nonviolent actions to demand increased wages, benefits and better working conditions. One group of workers that has received far too little attention is adjunct college professors.

According to data collected by the Chronicle of Higher Education, adjuncts at one college and two universities near my home in Southeast Florida earn between $1,380 and $3,000 to teach a fifteen-week, three-credit course. My own university’s published rates range from $1,500 to $3,000. A national survey found the average pay for a three-credit course to be $2,700.

Ohio State University's University Hall.

Ohio State University’s University Hall.

Given that the typical equation for calculating preparation and grading time for a three-credit course is three hours for every one hour of class time, it’s safe to assume that adjuncts put in a good 135 hours during a semester. That works out to just over $10 an hour for someone making the lowest rate and about $22 an hour for the higher rate based on the rates listed above.

This is appalling, especially since most adjuncts have terminal degrees and the massive student debt that accompanies them, and it puts many adjuncts in the same camp as 42 percent of workers in the U.S. who earn less than $15 an hour, according to Forbes.

The American Association of University Professors has noted that of the more than 30,000 adjunct professors who would like to obtain a full-time academic position, more than 60 percent hold one or more other jobs.

These wages are not nearly ample to afford the basic necessities of life in the U.S. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) estimates that in New England, an adjunct professor would have to teach 17 to 24 classes a year to be able to afford a home and pay for utilities. Teaching four classes per year would cover only the grocery bill for a family of four.

The work is also unstable, as classes can be cancelled at the last minute if enrollment is not adequate. One adjunct even described her class being canceled the morning it was to start.  According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, a living wage in Miami is $11.45 per hour for a single adult.

In addition to these unfair low wages, adjuncts do not receive any kind of benefits. Many times, they are not even allotted a space on campus to meet with students, or if they are, it might be one without a computer or phone.

A report from the University of California at Berkeley found that nearly a quarter of all adjunct professors receive some form of public assistance, like food stamps or Medicaid. Many must, as grown educated adults with advanced degrees, live with their families, and struggle to afford basic food requirements. One adjunct professor reported, “I lived off of fried potatoes and onions for the semester. I actually lived better as a grad student than I do now.”

To make ends meet, many adjuncts become “gypsies,” jetting from one campus to another to teach as many classes as possible. I did this some time ago, at one time teaching seven classes at three different universities, just so that my family of three could afford a cheap apartment. The hours spent on the road, of course, are not calculated in the pay.

Adjunct faculty are rarely integrated into school or departmental activities. One study of 105 research universities found that faculty senates at approximately two-thirds of the sample excluded adjuncts from participation. Another study conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Adjunct Project found that more than half of the respondents had no say at all in faculty governance.

My own experience is that the adjuncts are physically separated in that, when office space is allotted, it is nowhere near the other faculty. I was never invited nor welcomed to departmental activities. Indeed, most faculty members had no idea who I was.

Worse, while often being hired sight-unseen, adjunct professors can be undermined when administrators determine they need to excessively control the curriculum. At one university where I was hired based only on my curriculum vitae (no personal interaction, not even a phone interview) to teach an introductory course, I received an email three weeks into the semester detailing my syllabus, lecture notes and exams.

Given that I had obviously already provided my students with a syllabus and the course was well underway, I chose to ignore this email from the department chair (whom I never met) and carried on as I had planned. Not surprisingly, there was no follow-up to that email and, despite ignoring these requests, I was asked (but could not) teach again for that university.

In essence, while they are some of the workhorses of higher education, adjuncts are decidedly second-class citizens. In February, the SEIU recommended that adjuncts earn $15,000 per course. They admit this might be reaching for the sky, but argue that a national conversation about adjunct wages is desperately needed.

If we truly believe that education is the pathway not only to financial success but also to personal satisfaction, it is completely deplorable that we compensate a significant portion of the people who provide it so poorly. In particular, at universities that pledge to value social justice and human rights, it is an atrocity that employees who perform such a valuable service are not afforded a living wage.

Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

14 comments for “How ‘Adjunct’ Professors Are Exploited

  1. July 29, 2015 at 19:11

    There are some rules and guidelines about posting comments which perhaps you might read. There was a recent reminder about comment policy.

    I don’t think you were “censored” for “speaking the truth” as you like to fancy.

    • July 30, 2015 at 12:05

      This was in response to a deleted comment by a poster who had been making some very nasty and unfairly judgmental comments about professors who are not able to support themselves.

  2. Dee Trump
    July 27, 2015 at 11:05

    You make this sound like the education system is the only thing failing in the US. What do you attribute all of America’s current shortcomings and vile excesses to? Maybe you are not aware this is an entire social and cultural as well as political problem?

    Or possibly you think that successful entertainment, sports and fake “news” industries with a systematically corrupted political system is a smashing success for our “democracy”?

    These things and failures are all connected if you’d care to take a snapshot of the true “big-picture”.

  3. diogenes
    July 26, 2015 at 22:37

    Let’s not forget that American colleges have now been transformed into institutions working to saddle the youth of America with decades of debt peonage — in “exchange” for an “education” — a bill of goods sold by a monopoly cartel — that leaves them with minimal or no salable skills with which to pay these debts and in total ignorance of the real operations of the system that enslaves then — and us. And professors are major players in this filthy filthy game — from tenured full profs to adjuncts. How are these people any better than slave auctioneers in Charleston in 1840? Or are they worse?

    • Dee Trump
      July 27, 2015 at 05:07

      Who exactly or what group is not part of the problem and who is correctly informed that has not sold out? Why do you think these people aren’t being seen or heard on the evening news? Where do we find these people or where and how do they make themselves and the truth be known? What would you or anyone be up against in leading the way to educating America and the world?

  4. Andoheb
    July 26, 2015 at 20:00

    One wonders why college tuition and student debt continue to surge when so many academics are paid so badly. Student debt explosion has triggered a huge bubble in higher education. Lots of colleges and universities will be closing and/or downsizing when the bubble bursts.

  5. Cherelyn
    July 26, 2015 at 08:58

    I was interviewed last summer to teach two 3-hour communications classes as an adjunct professor. The pay was so low that I decided to do the math and concluded I could make more money flipping burgers at McDonald’s. To top it off the classes were located in two different counties several miles apart. The amount paid for mileage was a joke and pay for time on the road was nonexistent. When I left the room the interviewing professor knew I had no intention of taking an offer. I have bills to pay.

  6. diogenes
    July 26, 2015 at 01:20

    American colleges and American college professors at EVERY LEVEL collaborate in the enforcement of every official lie that maintains the Wall Street oligarchic police state that has taken over and rules our country. They can’t tell the truth about anything and everything, from the causes of the First World War to Fukushima, from the true maldistribution of wealth in America and the reasons why it has been maintained for over a century to what actually happened on Dec. 7, 1941, on Nov. 22, 1963 and on Sept. 11, 2001, from the world-topping deadliness of American police practices and the world-topping numbers of people imprisoned in the American gulag, to the facts of factional banking and the facts of nuclear power, and from the facts of America’s filthy predatory so-called “health” system as compared with any other “developed” country on the planet to the rotten conditions of American labor and how they are maintained … and on and on and on. These hirelings are very very good, on the other hand, at snowjobs and bafflegab. “Toxic sludge is good for you.” American colleges and their personnel are traitors to the American people — to each and every one of us — and to American democracy, and every professor who collects pay from them at every level goes along with the program and collaborates with this treason or is quickly ejected. The very best collaborators, provided that they have the right “connections” and play the game as instructed, get tenure and get to sit on top of this pile of hired liars — and do and say exactly as their “administrator” bosses order them — or else. This is not “education” and it is not “research”. It is brainwashing and corruption and treason.

    • F. G. Sanford
      July 26, 2015 at 12:37

      Astute comment. I do feel some sympathy for struggling professors, but having spent eleven years in “higher education” – as a STUDENT, mind you (I’ve completed two post-doctoral programs) – there isn’t much here I can disagree with. One of my mentors called Princeton University the “worlds only sprawling collection of stone whorehouses”. (I’m not a Princeton graduate, but he was.) Noam Chomsky is among the best America has to offer, but even he can’t find the courage to question the official story lines of our greatest national tragedies. Norman Finkelstein, an unquestionably brilliant, honest and courageous man, never got tenure thanks to that reprehensible sycophant Alan Dershowitz. If people knew what kind of charlatanism passes for scientific “research” in America, they’d be horrified. But given the pathetic quality of American education today, they’re blissfully ignorant. Even at the Ph.D. level, many are ill equipped to critically evaluate much of what passes for primary research published in so-called “peer reviewed learned journals”. Some of the WORST is to be found in healthcare research. In all my years of “higher education”, I encountered only one lecturer with a truly analytical mind and the intestinal fortitude to put his courage where his mouth was. Lots of people didn’t like him. Many of their criticisms were true. A recent article on another site asks, “Where are America’s best and brightest now that we really need them?” That’s an easy one. They’ve been threatened, intimidated, bamboozled, subjected to the whims of political and academic nepotism, favoritism and academic “mediocritocracy”. A lot of them give up, as I suspect the author of this article may one day do. The “fair haired boys and girls” are nearly all politically adept and obsequious flatterers. By the way, that lone, intrepid lecturer was Dr. Cyril Wecht.

    • Bill Bodden
      July 26, 2015 at 12:56

      I was giving some thought to adding a comment, but you have saved me the effort of making my point and you did so with more authority.

  7. Diogenes
    July 25, 2015 at 23:52

    American colleges and American college professors at EVERY LEVEL collaborate in the enforcement of every official lie that maintains the American oligarchic police state. They can’t tell the truth about anything and everything, from the causes of the First World War to Fukushima, from the true maldistribution of wealth in America and the reasons why it has been maintained for over a century to what happened on Nov. 22, 1963 and on Sept. 11, 2001, from the world-topping deadliness of American police practices and the world-topping numbers of people imprisoned in the American gulag, from the facts of factional banking to the facts of nuclear power, and from the facts of America’s filthy predatory “health” system as compared with any other “developed” country on the planet .. and on and on and on. American colleges are traitors to American democracy and very professor who collects pay from them at every level collaborates with this treason or is quickly ejected. The very best collaborators, provided that they belong to the right social groups, and play the game as instructed, get tenure.

    • Aman
      July 26, 2015 at 10:19

      I can’t argue with the gist of your comment but do believe many of the country’s educators are as unwittingly ignorant as average citizens, for exactly the same reasons, concerning how we arrived at where we are now.

      80% of the US population still has not been exposed to and confronted with the truth while having our noses rubbed in the truth in a meaningful way to make a difference “yet”.

      It is a good thing people who are aware are beginning to raise their voices enough to be heard.

      But when we understand the CIA and FBI have historically been involved in infiltrating and subverting peaceful groups that want to raise awareness and/or bring change, it becomes apparent the government itself has long been the instrument of those who prefer we remain ignorant and continue fighting amongst ourselves with many not ever understanding who our real enemies are.

      Maybe we can blame the entire current state of affairs on a general lack of sufficient human intelligence and lack of accurate perception along with inability to foretell what our deficiencies have and will deliver us into?

    • Alex Gorsky
      July 30, 2015 at 08:35

      Best regards from Cambridge, UK.
      Nothing to add, you said it all.
      One thing, perhaps. Here, it goes on for 8 centuries!

  8. Aman
    July 25, 2015 at 11:43

    Unfortunately; this report is just another “sign of the times”.

    If it “could” be determined how much criminal collusion took place between politicians and corporate industry to deliver the US into the current state of reality — it would be a monumental task just to research it, much less put all together in one cohesive and telling story.

    From the perspective of social science, it would be interesting to know how much the current state of affairs is due the general population believing the lies and propaganda put forth by the entirety of criminal elites, politicians and all.

    Imagine what the country could do if we actually had all the money lost to criminal bankers and the criminal orchestration of unecessary wars from which few benefit and the majority pays — and because we don’t prosecute these crimes we invite more of the same…

    The entire game of American monopoly capitalism has already proven to put all of us at odds with each other. The exception would be the less than 1% of the elites who all percieve to benefit from the worsening status quo — though another billion or hundred thousand billion will not change the quality of their lives for the better — in fact they put themselves and our civil society at risk by creating so many people fantasizing or looking forward to radical change or a reconning.

    As the most violent people on earth, we might consider that honest and fact based educations would be well worth the price as opposed to the manipulatively controlling and effectually oppressive propagada we’re all being fed and consuming…

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