Being an adjunct professor at a college may be the job with the single biggest discrepancy between the (high) education level required to hold it and the (astoundingly low) level of pay. How long until this system blows up?
Higher education, which has been a great growth industry in America, essentially operates with a two-tier labor system: full-time and tenured professors have relatively well-paid and stable jobs, and a much larger mass of adjunct professors have no job stability, few benefits, and awful pay. Adjunct pay varies, but the figure generally used as average is $2,700 per class, giving even many hardworking adjunct professors annual pay of around $20,000 per year. It is the low-wage labor of adjuncts that keeps the whole system humming. Ironically, they are also living counterexamples of the idea that higher education is a good financial investment.
Unsurprisingly, adjuncts—a group that is by definition well-educated—are not happy with the current system. Walkouts, tales of impoverished teachers, and efforts to unionize have become de rigeur, but adjuncts, like many low-wage workers, find it hard in most cases to gain real bargaining power (unless the full time and tenured faculty commit to stand with them). It doesn’t help that universities and their surrogates often strongly oppose adjunct organizing campaigns, claiming that raising the pay of adjuncts would cause the entire delicate and exploitative balance of the college industry to collapse.
That’s hardly a persuasive argument to someone who spent a decade getting a PhD and now makes $20,000 a year. While retail and service industry workers could probably use the help of unions more than anyone else in America, adjunct professors are not too far behind—and at a time when hourly wages are finally rising to $15 in some cities, it is now completely possible for an adjunct professor to make significantly less than, say, a Walmart worker, even as the requirements to land the job are much more onerous.
So, some adjuncts unionize. Others quit in protest. And many more just grit their teeth and do the work, because they have student loans to pay off. In America’s shiny, leafy, perfect campuses, adjuncts are the lone child locked in darkness whose misery keeps the rest of Omelas blissful. (I read that story in college!)
What is the reality of life as an adjunct professor? I’d like to run some stories from adjuncts. Please email me if you’d like to share the following info: How much money do you make? How much do you work? How does your school treat adjuncts? What is your quality of life? And what do you think should be done to change the labor system of colleges and universities, if anything?