The low-paid, highly educated worker on college campuses


by Mary Ellen Flannery

Zdenko Juskuv teaches five courses on at least three different campuses for two different Rhode Island colleges, and spends 40 to 50 hours a week, sometimes even 60, grading papers, advising students in person and over email, planning and preparing new course materials, and more.

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For all this, the Master’s-educated adjunct professor earns about $24,000 a year, without health benefits or job security. And still, he says, he loves it. “I really enjoy working with the students, building relationships with them… seeing them succeed in life and better themselves.”

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama promised action on the issue of income inequality in the United States. “Those at the top have never done better,” he said. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.”

Those words ring especially true on college and university campuses, where a growing number of adjunct or contingent faculty members like Juskuv earn poverty wages, and struggle in working conditions that often undermine student learning. For many, forming or joining a faculty union is the answer.

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In a report entitled, “The Just-in-Time Professor,” released this week by the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff [ed note: pdf link], the authors write, “While the occupation of ‘college professor’ still retains a reputation as a middle-class job, the reality is that… their story is another example of the shrinking middle class and another data point in the widening gap between rich and poor.”

More than 75 percent of the instructional workforce in higher education, or more than 1 million faculty members, is now contingent labor, compared to 18.5 percent about 40 years ago. In summarizing responses from more than 800 educators, including many NEA Higher Ed members, the House Democrats found that contingent faculty’s median annual pay is $22,041. More than half have Ph.D.s, and most have been teaching under these abysmal conditions for more than 10 years.

Wrote one respondent:

During the time I taught at the community college, I earned so little that I sold my plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for my daughter’s daycare costs. Seriously, my plasma paid for her daycare because I taught English as adjunct faculty.

Juskuv has colleagues who supplement their academic income with part-time gigs at Home Depot, restaurants, bookstores, and more. He usually works summers on his in-laws’ farm.

In short, the report’s authors write,

Adjuncts and other contingent faculty likely make up the most highly educated and experienced workers on food stamps and other public assistance in the country.

To cobble together enough wages to pay for food and rent, many drive hundreds of miles each day to teach on multiple campuses, from morning to night. Adding to their economic stress, an overwhelming 95 percent said they had zero job stability and less than a third have health benefits. (One answer to that, say House Dems, is the proposed Part-Time Workers Bill of Rights Act, which would require employers to provide health benefits to part-time workers.)

GotTuitioncollegecar-300x198 06-20-12Additionally, adjunct faculty often are hired (or fired) days before classes begin, denied email access to students, not provided with textbooks or library support, and cut out of professional development opportunities for tenure-track or tenured professors on the same campuses. (Many of these instructional issues also have been outlined in a recent Campaign for the Future of Higher Education report, entitled “Who is ‘Professor Staff,’ and how can they teach so many classes?”)

And still, these underpaid, overworked educators persist, they say, because they love teaching and they want to help their students learn. Despite their own personal stories, they still believe a college degree is a pathway to the American Dream for their students.

For many, including Justuv, the answer is unionization. Contingent faculty who belong to unions earn more — 25 percent more per course, on average, according to a 2010 survey — and they’re also more likely to have health and retirement benefits, and contractual provisions around job security. For Justuv, who belongs to a faculty union at one institution and is working on organizing one at the other, the difference is clear. And it’s not just about salary, he said, it’s also about transparency in course assignments.

Although some research shows that students who take more classes with non-tenured professors are less likely to graduate and more likely to earn lower grades, Juskuv disputes the idea that there is any difference in quality of instruction between his part-time and full-time colleagues. “I don’t buy the theory that adjuncts deliver substandard education,” he said. “Everybody I know really, really cares, and they deliver for their students. They don’t cut corners.”

Reader Comments

  1. I too have worked as an adjunct at the local CC. It was an ok job but the pay was miserable for the commitment required. I have not taken a new class in several years. Adjuncts should be happy (IMO) with what is happening. Colleges shouldn’t be allowed to balance their budgets on the backs of well meaning teachers. They need to be hiring full time staff.

  2. I think the article should have focused more on the research that has found that adjuncts do teach well! Adjuncts are valuable educators!

    In the February 26, 2014, edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, author Dan Berrett stated that a recent Northwestern University study found “Students learned more when their first in­struc­tor in a dis­ci­pline was not on the ten­ure track, as com­pared with those whose in­tro­duc­tory pro­fes­sor was tenured” (par. 1).

    These two articles draw some much needed attention to the plight of adjuncts, especially at community colleges. As an adjunct teaching English, developmental writing and reading, as well as introductory courses to college life, I have made a positive impact on my students. Recently, even after a long history of stellar evaluations and nomination for recognition, I was told that adjuncts could no longer teach more than 2 courses per semester as opposed to the 6-7 I was previously teaching over multiple campuses. This signified a huge blow to my salary and has forced me into finding employment in other teaching markets (k-12, private, etc.). When asking why, I am told that there has to be a line drawn between what constitutes full-time teaching and what constitutes part-time teaching for insurance purposes. I hold a MS degree and multiple state teaching licenses, yet a full-time position in the teaching field in MA has continued to elude me. I don’t need health insurance; I have insurance through my spouse’s employment, but I do want to continue to teach and make a difference in my students’ lives at a salary that I can pay my bills.

  3. Additionally, when enrollment is down in tenure-track professor’s classes, they have priority for re-assignment to classes originally set-up for adjunct faculty. The contracts are protected in many ways, including pre-requisites, at the expense of adjunct faculty and in some sense the student body.

  4. I retired four years ago as theatre director and history professor at the local community college after 22 years there, and 37 years of teaching. The amount adjuncts are paid has prevented me from even looking at teaching, even though I live within walking distance of my old school. Instead, I spend my time and experience in volunteer work, where I am treated much better than I ever was as a teacher.

  5. I have a Doctoral degree and more than 10 years of experience and I totally agree with this article.

    In Virginia for the ones of us who work at Community colleges the situation has become worse. Since the VCCS does not want to give its Adjunct faculty the health care coverage they should under the new healthcare law, they have put a limit on the number of credits one can teach. What makes it particularly difficult is that the limit is not at one specific Community college but it represents the total of what one can teach at any of the colleges within the system. The contract now that an adjunct signs has a longer list of disclaimers and penalties than it had before with no rights whatsoever for the faculty and no assurance of getting paid. To the long list of uncertainties is the one which gives the College the right to cancel a class because of low enrollment on the very day it is supposed to start, or to ask the Faculty to teach it on a pro rata basis, and then not knowing when one will actually get paid until after classes have started.

    Yet, we teach, some by sheer necessity, but most because teaching is a vocation. Still, it is completely unfair and that the affordability that we all want for our students is done on the back of its most vulnerable workers: the adjunct faculty. They deserve more than a pat on the back.

    1. I completely agree with you! I am in the exact same situation at my community college! I love teaching there and until this new health care issue arose, felt valued.

    1. And that may be the reason so many professors are foreign,and the students can’t
      understand them. Tough on the students who want to learn and cannot understand what they are saying.

      1. Without seeming xenophobic, this was a common comment among my students. We had a poor woman working the front desk in financial aid who many students said they could not understand. As if financial aid is not tough enough to negotiate. Disgraceful for all involved, and humiliating for the poor employee as well.

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