Adjuncts are professors who are hired part-time with semester-by-semester contracts. They get paid a certain amount per course, per semester, and that is all. That pay averages anywhere from approximately $1000 to $4000 per course, per semester, depending on the college. Most average a salary of about $1500- $2500 per course, per semester. Generally, they aren't allowed to teach more than three classes, per semester, so the colleges don't have to pay medical benefits. That means if teaching is their only means of employment, they have to teach at two or three different institutions, all of which probably offer different pay scales. Note: that pay is per course, per semester, not per month. That amount per course has to be broken down and parsed out over each month of the semester. Adjuncts also suffer many other inequities, such as limited or no office space, little or no voice in curriculum or other departmental or college wide decisions, and more. These injustices not only undermine the abilities of adjuncts to teach at their best, but also undermine the success of colleges, in general, by discouraging students from spending so much time and money getting degrees that colleges, themselves, don't respect enough to pay what most would consider a good return for all the money, time, and hard work those degrees cost.
I am a full-time, associate professor at a community college. Over the years, I have watched many of my adjunct colleagues grow cynical, depressed, and discouraged by the conditions under which they work. These conditions have grown worse as the numbers of adjuncts have grown larger. Many of them are good teachers who end up leaving teaching for other careers where they can make a decent salary with benefits. Most teachers want to make at least $60,000 a year to enjoy a basic, middle class lifestyle that a college degree is supposed to help us acquire, though in many parts of the US a larger salary than that is required for a middle-class income. Many, especially those just starting in this career, settle for almost half of that and give up their dream of having both a rewarding career they love and a middle class lifestyle. Most adjuncts earn significantly less than even that. And adjuncts don't get medical insurance or any other benefits. These conditions often severely limit their abilities to provide the kind of strong education that colleges promise students and which those teachers would have been capable of under better circumstances.
In January, 2014, The Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) issued a damning report about how this is affecting student learning. The report states, “The cumulative impact of working conditions impedes the ability of individual instructors to interact with students and apply their many talents, creativity, and varied knowledge to maximum effect in the classroom.” The report also states that in 1969, tenured and tenure-track faculty comprised almost 80 percent of most colleges’ and universities’ faculty; non-tenured faculty made up less than 22 percent. However, by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, this ratio was almost reversed: “…tenured and tenure-track faculty had declined to 33.5 percent and 66.5 percent of faculty were ineligible for tenure…” Almost half of those 66.5 percent non-tenure-track positions were adjuncts. This is especially true of community colleges, which are more likely to have the largest ratio of adjunct to full-time faculty than most four-year colleges or universities. According to a special report by the Center for Community College Student Engagement, as of 2014, at least 58 percent of community college courses were taught by part-time faculty. At the community college where I teach, in 2014, only 327 out of 1511 faculty were full-time, according to the “College Factsheet” on its website: that means 78 percent were adjuncts.
Members of this enormous cadre of underpaid and undervalued educators are required to have earned a masters, doctorate, or other terminal degree in order to work under these extremely limiting conditions, and many have large student loans to pay off. Despite these professional requirements, adjuncts have become a quick solution as a cheap work force in a time of large economic shortfalls. In the short term, no doubt using adjuncts instead of full-time faculty does help cut immediate costs in salaries and benefits. However, few people seem to consider how this does more harm to the academic effectiveness, and consequently, reputations and economic stability of colleges in the long term.
The horrible pay, lack of benefits, lack of sufficient office space, and sometimes even lack of loyalty and support from the college for which these exploited professionals teach undermines the long term success of those educational institutions. This is not only because these conditions erode students’ learning, but also because of what undervaluing those educators says about the institutions whose main purpose – their reason for existing— is supposed to be to educate students. If educational institutions don’t value educators or their education and the societal promises of success inherent in their degrees, why should anyone else? When students see professors with advanced degrees treated much the same way as part-time, temporary clerks with only a high school degree, or other blue collar, temporary workers are treated, that sends the wrong kind of message to them about the value of the very thing for which colleges are asking them to pay so much money.
The conditions adjuncts work under can make it difficult for them to meet their contractual obligations, for example, office hours. At the college where I teach, all of the English, science and computer-science faculty are crowded into one office bay. Forget the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act's mandates on privacy in regards to conferences with students in our adjuncts' offices. Thirty adjuncts share two offices, one of which has only three desks, three chairs, and three computers; one set of those is also partially the territory of a full-time professor. The other office is the size of a walk-in closet and has two desks, two chairs, and two computers. Forget safely storing items like purses, cell phones, or computers. Adjuncts aren’t given keys to offices; consequently, those stay open all the time, and even the full-time professor who shares his office with a rolling turnover of adjuncts can’t lock his door. The only other space for the adjuncts are two computers with chairs in the hallway of the bay, but sometimes the full-time computer faculty like to use those computers to work with their students during office hours, so even that space is sometimes not available for adjuncts’ use. Many adjuncts end up holding office hours in the library, the cafeteria, or in another office bay in one of the other buildings, which has a bit more office space available (though not much more). Sometimes, some just don’t hold office hours even though they are supposed to because it is too much hassle to try to find somewhere to meet with students.
When students don’t have privacy to talk with a professor or when their instructor struggles to find space to meet with them, why wouldn’t they interpret that as a sign of how little the college values that professor? Why, then, should they value what that instructor has to offer in the classroom?
Adjunct professors sometimes can’t meet with students at all because they have to leave class and drive a half hour or so to another college campus to teach classes there just in order to make ends meet, financially – or try to. Most can’t survive economically even when teaching part-time at several different educational institutions unless they are being supported by a spouse or have some other source of income. In some cases, a smaller subset of adjuncts have full-time jobs elsewhere, and teaching is just a supplement to that; these adjuncts provide current, professional expertise for students to learn from, but also share similar problems as other adjuncts, including, perhaps, conflicts with their time commitments to their other employer.
The negative impacts of a large, part-time teaching work force, which is often in flux with a high turnover rate, are actually too many to go on enumerating here; from student/teacher relationships, to difficulties in curriculum decisions and departmental collegiality, grade inflation, and other impacts on learning, the over reliance on adjunct faculty undermines colleges' academic standards and reputations. Perhaps the most important of these is academic rigor. I guarantee students notice if a professor is too accommodating, too easy in grading or giving assignments. They advertise this among their friends and on social media even though they might not understand the reasons for it: a professor’s wariness of student evaluations or reprisals for rigorous grading or a rigorous syllabus, and the extreme lack of job security or institutional support can foster the kind of fear that might tempt a professor to water down a course. This, of course, is something full-time faculty, especially nontenured ones, struggle with, also, but adjuncts are particularly vulnerable to the way student evaluations are used to rate professors' performance and make hiring/firing decisions. Students might want an easy teacher at first – like all of us, students are sometimes tempted by the easy path – but in the long run, at least some of them will grow to understand how this short changes their education and, eventually, possibly their career success.
A college is only as good as its academic rigor and its resulting academic reputation. No matter how good of an advertising campaign a college wages, students (and the families who often help pay for their education) generally choose a college because of its academic reputation and costs. Academic success and perceptions of the value of their education are major factors in why students do or do not transfer from, or drop out of, the college they initially enrolled in. If they feel their education is not providing what they need for academic and future career success, they might, and probably should, transfer to a different institution; some might even drop-out of college and pursue a profession that doesn’t require a college degree and the long term debt that it often entails.
Another important point that seems to be overlooked in much of the discussion about adjuncts is that college professors – adjunct or full-time – are often students’ first encounter with professionals with advanced degrees, especially if they are first generation college students. These professors are hired for those degrees and other academic credentials and are the ones carrying out what is supposed to be the real mission of a college: educating students and perhaps even helping them to go on to graduate school (or at community colleges, to pursue a four-year degree) and/or eventually gain a career or professional job, as well as learning strong critical thinking skills and gaining knowledge and proficiency in their chosen fields of study. If students see that their professors are making a barely livable (or unlivable) wage with no benefits in an institution which provides those very same degrees, surely those students are going to suspect something is wrong. To use the business parlance many administrators in American education have become so fond of over the past few decades: a business that doesn’t value its own product, and publically shows how little it values its own product, isn’t going to sell much of that product or stay in business for long. The whole practice of replacing full-time faculty positions with adjuncts, of using more adjuncts than full-time faculty, paying them horribly and forcing them to work in circumstances that often limit their success as teachers, ignoring the financial and professional rewards and respect their degrees are generally presumed to confer, is self-defeating in the long run.
Enrollments at the college where I teach and in many across the country are going down, but tuition costs are rising. I suppose it’s possible that a slick advertising campaign can help turn around the drop in enrollments, but I haven’t seen any evidence of that at our college yet. (Our administration paid $460,000 to an outside public relations agency for an advertising and re-branding campaign last year, according to our president’s March 4, 2014, newsletter.) Retention is also suffering, especially at community colleges. If we don’t retain those students, new enrollments won’t matter. Nor will we gain new enrollments if our academic reputation suffers. Retention and dropping enrollments are, of course, complicated problems. Certainly what happens in the classroom is a large factor, however. Colleges need to find very different ways to save money and rescue their budgets.
One solution would be to cut back on administrator salaries and/or positions. According to the “The Huffington Post,” reporting on an analysis done by The American Institutes for Research, “The number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students or faculty, according to an analysis of federal figures.” Why do colleges need so many more administrators today than they did 25 years ago? Surely all colleges could save significant amounts of money by cutting back on the number of administrators, or by making at least half of those administrators part-time employees without benefits and with lower salaries than they have now. Other than academic deans or student life directors, few administrators have direct contact with students on a regular basis. They are supposed to provide support for faculty, students, and the logistical and financial systems that keep a college functioning. Surely many of those functions can be done by part-time administrators. If colleges are going to be miserly about people with advanced degrees, they should at least be less obvious about it and exploit administrators who don't come in contact with students, rather than faculty who are the ones who deal directly with students, constantly, while fulfilling the actual purpose for which colleges exist, educating those students.
Obviously, deans, directors and the vice-presidents or presidents above them need to be full-time, but do they need to make so much money? Why do media and the public debates about education focus so much on teachers’ salaries, but not on administrators’? According to “Higher Ed Jobs,” college presidents generally earn anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000 dollars a year. Deans generally earn about $95,000 to over $200,000. In fact, most administrative jobs involving some kind of title pay over $90,000. Why do they deserve to make so much money when so many faculty, especially adjunct faculty, are underpaid? Even most full-time faculty do not make anywhere near that amount. Once upon a time, some university professors did make close to $100,000 or even slightly more by retirement age, but not anymore unless, perhaps, at large research universities, especially Ivy-league ones, but certainly not at most colleges now, especially not at most community colleges. Some of those who are currently nearing retirement age and still under old contracts may make a large salary. However, most full-time faculty still a decade or more away from retirement will be lucky to make $65,000 or slightly more when we get close to retirement, in part because of all the budgetary cuts colleges have been forced to make over the past few years, but also because so many administrations (political, collegiate, and K-12) have become stingy about paying teachers while remaining generous about paying themselves. However, since administrators control the money and most logistical decisions in how colleges (and other schools) are run, cuts in their own salaries, or restructuring so administrators are mostly part-time instead of faculty being mostly part-time, isn’t likely to happen anytime soon unless students, politicians, and members of the public put pressure on them to do so.