“It’s especially hard if you have students who say they want to be a professor. It makes you wince.”
Think about how much you paid in college tuition: probably somewhere between $24,610 (if you’re at an in-state university) and $49,320 a year (for private colleges). You might assume a significant chunk of that tuition was making its way to your professors—the ones actually giving you an education—but in reality, most of it was dedicated to amenities, dorms or classroom buildings, and sports program. Only one-third of academic institution’s budgets, or $139 billion nationwide, goes to instruction.
To cut costs, colleges and universities are contracting two-thirds of all professors on a contingent basis, paying them meager wages that don’t even add up to the cost of living in the United States—$28,000. Which means that some of your professors were probably working multiple side jobs on top of teaching three classes. Contingent professors, also known as adjuncts or lecturers, are those in nontenure track position. The college or university has no formal commitment to these instructors, so their positions can be cut at any time, without any warning.
The pay per class varies from institution to institution but the average is $2,987, adding up to a salary of roughly $20,500 per year. It’s no surprise then that 1 in 4 adjunct professors are on public assistance of some kind: food stamps, Medicaid, welfare. And let’s not forget, many adjunct faculty across the country are among the minority of Americans with Ph.D.s—a degree that typically requires going at least $23,000 in debt. That probably okay when you’re a tenured professor with a long-term contract earning you anywhere from $69,206 to $102,402 a year, but when you’re an adjunct, it doesn’t matter that you have the same qualifications and teach the same classes: Your position could still go away faster than it takes to grade a paper.
Most part-time adjuncts, 3 out of every 4, in fact, hold additional jobs, the majority of which turn to the gig economy to make ends meet. What colleges and universities don’t realize is that these wage gaps they’ve created are actually having a detrimental effect on the people they’re serving: the students. Research has shown that when contingent professors aren’t equipped with the resources they need to be the best teachers, they are less prepared and less student-centered. And that’s translating to the student’s experience in a striking way: Students taught by more contingent faculty have lower graduation rates and are less likely to transfer from two-year to four-year institutions.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]It’s especially hard if you have students who say they want to be a professor. It makes you wince.[/quote]
Brody Burroughs, a part-time lecturer in Ithaca College’s department of art, has been a contingent faculty member for approximately eight years. His $16,500 salary teaching two courses per semester has remained roughly the same throughout his time at IC, and at age 40, he can’t afford to buy a new car. His title comes with prestige, a professorship at a private liberal arts college, and he recognizes the privilege in having the position at all. But he’ll be paying off his student debt from that degree until he’s 52. To make ends meet, he works at a boat shop two days per week, moonlights as a waiter seasonally, and does manual labor on a farm 38 miles away from his home in upstate New York, in addition to selling his own paintings—an expectation of any art professor. Somehow, he tries to fit students in between.
“I don't want to walk away from what I'm best at,” he says. “But the lack of ability to plan a life that comes along with being terminated and rehired twice a year, is starting to wear on my soul.”
At the public University of Vermont, adjuncts earn an average of approximately $4,800 per course, almost $1,000 more per course than their Ithaca College counterparts. Still, environmental studies Professor Brian Tokar holds two other jobs—union work and mentoring gigs—in addition to teaching (which accounts for only about a one-third of his gross income). “Here in Vermont, many people work a variety of freelance jobs,” he says, “but it can still be stressful for my income to be variable and unpredictable.”
Being an adjunct makes it harder for Tokar to be the best professor: “I don’t have an office on campus, so meetings with students invariably happen in public places,” he says. “My outside work commitments make it difficult to participate in campus events outside of my teaching hours. I’m often able to compensate through increased email communication and such, but, clearly, there are tradeoffs.”
It’s easy to suggest that professors switch positions if things are so bad. Many do, but other faculty jobs are extremely hard to come by. The number of qualified candidates exceed the number of positions and even exceptional candidates miss out. Plus, Burroughs explains, there is a perception in higher education that if you’ve been an adjunct, it means you were somehow not good enough to be a full-time professor.
That perception is not necessarily true—this study actually proves it wrong—but there is something to be said for how hard it is to be at the top of your game when you’re forced to juggle a number of other jobs. For Professor Burroughs, being an adjunct means he doesn’t have the power to advocate for student learning conditions. Something as simple as getting a light bulb replaced requires sorting through red tape and a huge amount of his time. The second is more existential: “Kids get excited about a subject,” he said, “but it becomes a challenge when you’re administering education, wondering if your own education was a mistake. It’s especially hard if you have students who say they want to be a professor. It makes you wince.”
As a result of the low pay, some of the best teaching candidates are staying out of academia. “We have a huge difficulty hiring and retaining competent instructors,” Georgia State professor Ian Campbell told Forbes. “Many will go through the hiring process right up until they find out about the salary, then turn us down. The most recent of these … made 50 percent more money teaching middle school English.”
If higher education continues to rely on the adjunct model, its students (and their wallets) are going to suffer. The good news is that there is power in numbers. Because there are so many more adjunct professors today, they are slowly starting to join together and form unions to fight for better pay and better job security. In recent years, the University of Vermont part-time faculty has unionized, as well as Tufts adjuncts and adjuncts at Duke University. Ithaca College adjuncts unionized earlier this year when the administration refused to move on contract negotiations for months.
After much public outcry and the threat of a strike, the administration finally agreed to a deal: Contingent professors will get annual raises of $1,025 per three-credit course, access to professional development funding, a kill fee (they still earn something for classes that are canceled at the last minute) and earlier notice of their schedule for the upcoming academic year. Hopefully, these faculty unions will continue to demand better resources for themselves, and, in turn, a better education for their students.