Working for Change in Higher Education: The Abysmal State of Adjunct Teacher Pay

The recent Chicago teachers’ strike provoked a great deal of thoughtful discussion on the topic of K-12 education and teaching conditions.

Important aspects of higher education, however, continue to be overlooked. In particular, the broader public is likely unaware of the unfair and even damaging teaching conditions adjunct or part-time professors are increasingly facing.

The average salary for a college professor is in the realm of just under $60,000.[1] Most full-time University professors teach around six courses a year while also engaging in a variety of scholarly research.  Full-time professors at community colleges and state colleges often teach 10 courses a year. Yet this only offers a limited vision of the condition of college educators.

Today, non-tenured, part-time instructors (adjuncts) comprise almost 70-percent of college and university faculties. And these teachers are paid very little. Until recently these educational laborers have been largely ignored. With newly organized projects such as the Adjunct Project, part-time college teachers are beginning to demand recognition of their plight, and how it impacts students.

In June 2012, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) released a report, “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members”[2] finding that the median adjuncts were paid for a standard three-credit college course was $2,700 in fall 2010. Based on responses of more than 10,000 part-time college educators, the report found that the median pay ranged from $2,235 at two-year colleges to $3,400 at four-year doctoral or research universities.

Adjuncts teaching at the community college and state college level in a state like Florida, for instance, make under $2,000 per class. This means that teaching eight classes a year would yield $16,000 annually for the most highly paid community or state college adjunct. Typically adjuncts have no benefits to speak of. This translates into a growing number of college professors who face severe economic hardship.

Many adjuncts comprise the growing number of impoverished graduate degree holders. As ABC News reported in May 2012,[3] the number of people possessing a PhD who received some kind of public assistance increased more than three-fold between 2007 and 2010, from 9,776 to 33,655. Nearly the same was true for those with master’s degrees: 101,682 in 2007 to 293,029 in 2010. In her article, “The Ph.D. Now Comes with Food Stamps” in the Chronicle for Higher Education, Stacey Patton speaks to adjunct faculty who rely on government assistance for economic survival. Among those are adjunct professor, Melissa Bruninga-Matteau, Ph.D.; Elliott Stegall, 51-year-old married father of two who teaches in the English department at Northwest Florida State College; and Kisha Hawkins-Sledge, a 35-year-old, single mother with a master’s degree in English.

As Sarah Kendzior points out in “The closing of American academia,”[4] these poverty-level wages are downplayed by attitudes toward teaching that treat such pay “as a source of gratitude. Volunteerism is par for the course….” This attitude is explicitly deployed by at least some college administrators who regularly address adjuncts as if they are all volunteers working side-gigs rather than taking time to learn that adjuncting, for many, is their principle financial means. Many adjuncts teach the same or more courses as full-time faculty, but are paid a fraction. Indeed, this is the reason many adjuncts teach larger course loads than full-time faculty. Yet approximating full-time pay of say $60,000 would require an adjunct to teach 25 to 30 classes a year!

Some of those unfamiliar with the time-consuming work of college-level instruction ask why teaching two-dozen or more classes a year is problematic for instructors. But adjuncts teaching 6-course semester loads, for instance, find themselves struggling to meaningfully teach and engage upwards of 300 students, while also continuously developing the knowledge base from which they are expected to teach. Such conditions often result in bureaucratized teacher-student relations: more scantron tests, fewer writing assignments, less one-on-one communication, and generally fewer opportunities for teachers to engage students as individuals and address their unique developmental needs. All of this is on top of the grueling, untenable work schedules, and a salary that is a fraction of the income of normally-employed instructors.

As discussed in “Dismantling the professoriate,”[5] an article discussing the CAW report’s findings: “Part-time teaching is not necessarily temporary employment, and those teaching part-time do not necessarily prefer a part-time to a full-time position.” 75% of survey respondents indicated that they have sought, are seeking, or will seek a full-time tenure-track position.

In response to these conditions individuals, organizations, and groups are mobilizing for change. Some adjuncts are now relating their cause to the broader Occupy Wall Street movement. In this video, “Adjunct Occupies Wall Street,” an unnamed adjunct educator explains his reasoning for joining the Occupy Wall Street movement including his dismay with poverty-level adjunct income and the failure by President Obama to address working conditions for people like himself. He explains,

I decided, after following this on the internet for a few days, that I had to come up here and show solidary with these people. I’m an adjunct professor. I get paid $2,500 per class, that’s $7,500 a semester, $15,000 a year. No benefits. Nothing. It’s not enough to live on. I have $45,000 in student loans I have to pay. I think a lot of people here had hope when Barack Obama won the election. He ran on a platform of change, and it didn’t happen. If you look at his policies it’s really clear that he’s that he’s looking out for the interests of the 1% just like the Republicans are. Republicans are more blatant about it. They just tell you they’re doing it. But the Democrats are supposed to represent the people and labor, and they’re not doing it. Their policies aren’t representing us. So if they’re not going to represent us in Washington, we have to represent ourselves.

In April of this year adjunct activism and the Occupy Wall Street movement converged when Occupy Boston’s General Assembly endorsed a rally for the union of adjunct faculty at UMass Lowell.

The connection between the plight of adjuncts and Wall Street is all too clear to Michelle Kern. In her September article, “Part-time faculty pay reaching poverty level,” Kern writes: “colleges are increasingly turning toward corporate models and business culture….Cheap and surplus labor is the model for an expanding bottom line in Wall Street-driven institutions and the same process has taken hold of our institutions of higher learning, especially in privatization at public universities.”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has begun a campaign they call “FACE,”[6] the Faculty and College Excellence campaign. Its aims include promoting legislation to increase part-time pay and establishing a better balance between full-time and contingent faculty via more full-time positions.

Founded by Joshua A. Boldt, the Adjunct Project is a crowdsourcing project bringing together part-time college educators who have and continue to document the pay and benefits (or lack thereof) received from institutions where they teach. In addition to documenting adjunct pay, an area that has received little meaningful examination, the website also serves to foster solidarity among adjunct educators, as well as dialogue about action, and sometimes simply the opportunity to vent.

In another campaign, activists are seeking 3,000 signatures to their petition, Better Pay for Adjuncts: Stop their Exploitation. Authored by Ana Maria Fores Tamayo, the petition demands “better pay and status for the majority of the faculty teaching in today’s institutions of higher education across the country.” As of this writing the petition is about 200 signatures shy of this goal.

For her part Kern calls on adjuncts to view themselves as the essential workforce they now are, and to organize through unions to improve their conditions and those of their students.

Jeff Nall holds a PhD in Comparative Studies: Feminism, Gender, and Sexuality from Florida Atlantic University. He teaches philosophy and gender studies at Indian River State College. For more of his work or to contact him go to



[2] See “Dismantling the professoriate,” On Campus, September-October 2012,

[3] Suanna Kim, May 9, 2012, “The Number of Ph.D.s on Public Aid Triples in U.S.,” ABC News

[4] Sarah Kendzior, 20 Aug 2012, “The closing of American academia,” Al Jazeera

“In most professions, salaries below the poverty line would be cause for alarm. In academia, they are treated as a source of gratitude. Volunteerism is par for the course – literally.”

[5] “Dismantling the professoriate,” On Campus, September-October 2012