Adjuncts–The Saddest Fact about Them

A report has been issued by the Coalition of the Academic Workforce that makes for depressing reading. It’s called “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members,” and it offers preliminary findings of a survey of contingent faculty members and instructors in higher education.

What is most depressing is not the median compensation adjuncts receive for teaching–overall, $2,700 per course, with two-year colleges offering $2,235 and four-year colleges $3,400.

It isn’t the fact that more teaching experience doesn’t affect that compensation at all–whether you have many years of experience or only a few, the rate is the same.

It isn’t the fact that adjuncts receive little institutional support and play no role in academic policy-making.

Nor is it the lack of consistency in the workforce–half of them teach one or two courses, half three or more courses.

It is, instead, the willingness of a majority of workers to stay in the system despite all those disadvantages. Fully 80 percent of the respondents state that they have taught part-time for more than three years. More than half of them have taught part-time for more than six years. Low pay, negligible standing, high workloads (lots of them teach freshman comp and spend hours and hours grading papers), and little prospect of improvement haven’t chased them away.

Indeed, more than 75 percent of them claim that they “have sought, are now seeking, or will be seeking a full-time tenure-track position.” Of course, they will be joined by thousands of fresh PhDs and post-docs who will also hit the job market in a few months. This is one impact that discussions of annual tenure-track openings don’t always acknowledge. When we have a down year for jobs followed by an up year, most of the people shut out in the down year try again in the up year, so that every annual decline has a multi-year impact. Competition keeps going up, and the likelihood of success going down. Still, those who fail usually tell themselves, “Next year, perhaps,” and spend the subsequent 12 months in the contingent ranks. It’s not just money and dedication that hold them there. It’s hope.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

3 thoughts on “Adjuncts–The Saddest Fact about Them

  1. Hmmmmm ….
    So, an adjunct gets $3,400 to teach a course at a 4 year university. ….
    So, after teaching FIFTEEN courses (including grading papers and tests), this adjunct will have earned (BEFORE TAXES) enough to pay for ONE SEMESTER as a student.[ $51,000 ]
    * shrug *
    SOMEONE has to pay for all those administrators, sabbaticals, palatial buildings, meaningless research grants.

  2. My situation isn’t typical, but maybe it will shed some light on…something. I finished my PhD in the early 90s, and after a short contract stint, found myself in a world that didn’t need English teachers. I bought a computer, taught myself how to use it, and got a job as a corporate technical writer. 15 years later, I’m a newly-minted full time professor at a for profit school for about the same $ I made in “The Private Sector”; one thing that attracted them was my 20 years of adjunct experience.
    For 15 years, I was told daily that my job was irrelevant and could end it any time. Twice, it did (the second time after 10 years’ service; I was too expensive). Those night classes kept me sane, because that work mattered to somebody, including me.
    Every time I go into the classroom I feel blessed that I got to return to what I should have been doing in the first place. I’m on a 9-month contract, so I’m teaching a total of 9 classes this Summer (mostly composition). When I’m grading and the sheer volume starts to get me down, I just think, “I could be in a cubicle right now.” Perspective is truly valuable.

  3. Having worked in a college ( not as an adjunct) but having my kids now playing the role of adjunct. I can only offer the following.
    I certainly understand the ‘disadvantages’ mentioned in this article and they are real. With every situation the are disadvantages and advantages.
    To increase pay with years of service would undoubtidly make the older prof. obsolete so that coleges and cover the requirement with profs. with less experience and less $$ out of the budget, that would not be a good thing.
    Adjuncts are independant contractors, like independent contractors of other fields there are the advantages of “working for your self” and picking what classes you want to teach to some degree. Most adjuncts are availed space to work at the colleges they teach at as well as some printing and admin services ( not necessarily available to ind. contractors of other fields of work)
    As an adjunct with several years of service stays with a particular institution there are opportunities to be an employee of the college and reap employee benefits. This is the proverbial ‘foot in the door’.
    Like many professions, they are undoubtidly taken for gratid in some respects, but to many it is a pretty good ‘gig’.
    Continued pros and cons could go on beyond this, but those who have done both,outside world jobs and adjunct prof. posisions I bet you know what they are.
    The world is becoming more and more independent contractors for all $$ reasons, teaching is not the only one experiencing these same ‘disadvantages’ you speak of. I think in this economy we need to look at the good aspects of ANY job so you too can feel better about your situation. We can all think of disadvantages….

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