The Plight of Adjunct Faculty on America’s Campuses

More colleges are prioritizing adjunct professors over tenure-track positions, but these low-paying gigs often lead to burnout and long-term instability.
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  • The number of part-time and contingent faculty has grown steadily over the last 40 years.
  • Many adjunct faculty live in poverty despite having a Ph.D. and years of teaching experience.
  • Women and minorities occupy an inordinate share of adjunct positions in the U.S.
  • Adjuncts nationwide are attempting to unionize to improve their working conditions.

I've been an adjunct professor for 20 years, teaching courses from time to time at various universities while working full time as a college administrator and consultant. Teaching is a passion of mine that happens to provide a few extra bucks on the side.

Yet for tens of thousands of adjunct professors, teaching part time is a dead-end job that doesn't provide a living wage. Most barely scrape by despite having a Ph.D. and years of classroom experience.

Adjuncts are higher education's version of migrant laborers — professionals hopping from campus to campus with no job security, a meager income, no health insurance or retirement benefits, and little hope for advancement. And their numbers are growing.

College students will likely encounter many adjunct instructors during their time in school, though many won't know it or even care. But are they being duped? Is this a classic bait-and-switch scenario deceiving students and families who assume classes are taught by "real" faculty? Does the increasing reliance on adjunct faculty threaten the quality and viability of higher education?

Most Adjuncts Earn Poverty-Level Wages

The full-time, tenure-track professor is a dying breed. Today, part-time faculty members constitute 40% of the academic workforce, compared to just 24% in 1975. More broadly, the classification of "contingent" faculty — which includes part-time adjuncts, full-time instructors not on the tenure track, and graduate-student teaching assistants — accounts for roughly 75% of the instructional staff across America's colleges and universities.

Adjuncts often cobble together a living by teaching at several institutions. A 2014 congressional report revealed that 89% of adjuncts taught at more than one college, while 27% worked at three schools and 13% taught at four or more, often requiring lengthy commutes between campuses.

Currently, adjuncts earn an average of just $2,700 per course and as little as $1,500 per course at community colleges. All told, adjuncts typically earn between $20,000 and $25,000 annually, compared to the $80,000 average salary for full-time professors, putting them below the federal poverty guideline for a family of four.

Adjuncts earn an average of just $2,700 per course and as little as $1,500 per course at community colleges. This equals about $20,000-$25,000 annually.

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It's no wonder, then, that nearly 25% of adjunct faculty require public assistance, and a mere 15% say they can comfortably cover basic expenses each month. An adjunct professor in New England, for example, has to teach four classes a year just to put food on the table for their family.

On top of financial woes, most adjuncts have no health or disability benefits, face an uncertain job market semester to semester, and can have classes canceled at the last minute because of low enrollment or other factors.

Stress and anxiety are simply a way of life. Stories abound of adjuncts sleeping in empty classrooms or cars and having mental breakdowns while teetering on the edge of personal and professional disaster. It's certainly not the life they envisioned while in graduate school.

Adjuncts Face Increased Levels of Stress, Burnout

An essay by an anonymous adjunct chronicles his career spanning 25 years of teaching part time. He's taught more than 500 courses across seven colleges, putting in 16-hour days and 80-hour weeks. His repertoire features 60 courses, including 25 he's created from scratch, and he's taught as many as 27 courses in one year.

He does it for the love of teaching and the betterment of students, but he's justifiably burnt out and at the end of his rope. He is, as the title of his essay suggests, on a "treadmill to oblivion."

And he's not alone. Tens of thousands of adjuncts are overworked and overstressed, which can lead to inferior teaching and learning and a lack of meaningful engagement with students. In its 2020 report titled "An Army of Temps," the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) notes that the continuing trend toward employing contingent faculty "undermines the faculty role in student success."

Tens of thousands of adjuncts are overworked and overstressed, which can lead to inferior teaching and learning.

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Adjuncts logging long hours and traveling from campus to campus don't have sufficient time to prepare for classes or provide thorough feedback on assignments. They don't have offices, let alone office hours. They're hit-and-run teachers — not long-term mentors or collaborators on research projects. They can't get to know students well and write recommendations for employment or graduate school.

And given the lack of tenure and job security, they're less likely to risk future employment by introducing controversial ideas and encouraging students to think critically about thorny issues. While some may be outstanding teachers, adjuncts are not, claims AFT, "deployed adequately by their departments or institutions to enhance the education experience for students."

Does this situation constitute an act of fraud, then, on the part of colleges and universities? Are students receiving an education — and evaluations and grades — from the faculty advertised on websites and in course catalogs? Are families getting a fair return on their considerable investment?

As more tuition dollars flow into colleges, fewer are being spent directly on teaching and learning.

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What if they knew before making that first tuition payment that their student would be taught primarily by a revolving door of part-timers and not, as the colleges so proudly declare, by the "world-class" faculty who burnish their brand?

Consider, too, that as tuition costs have mushroomed, the percentage of school spending on instructional costs has failed to keep pace. Over the past 20 years, the average tuition at private universities has risen 144%. Out-of-state tuition and fees at public institutions have increased 165%, while in-state costs have grown 212%.

But increases in spending on instruction have lagged behind expenditures on other areas, such as research, academic support, and student services. In other words, as more tuition dollars flow into colleges, fewer are being spent directly on teaching and learning, perhaps owing to the shift toward paying cheaper adjuncts instead of hiring full-time faculty.

Women and Minorities Make Up Disproportionate Number of Adjuncts

A study by the TIAA Institute offers some good news: Women and underrepresented minorities gained a greater share of faculty positions over a 20-year period. The bad news: Most of those gains occurred at the part-time and adjunct ranks.

Minorities hold only 10% of tenured jobs, while women hold 49% of faculty positions but only 38% of tenured jobs. During that period, part-time appointments for women grew 144%, raising the percentage of women in part-time roles from 48% to 56%. Whether these trends result from inherent biases among senior faculty and administrators remains unclear, but it's certainly plausible.

Where bias clearly does exist is in the notion that adjunct faculty can make the leap to full-time, tenured jobs. Adjuncts are cursed with a stigma of inferiority that prevents them from advancing professionally.

Minorities hold only 10% of tenured jobs, while women hold 49% of faculty positions but only 38% of tenured jobs.

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The anonymous adjunct mentioned earlier noted that during his 25 years in the field, he's seen only one part-timer make such a transition. "Once in that ghettoized space," writes Angela B. Fulk, another long-time adjunct, "most of us will find it impossible to escape."

Adjuncts are most assuredly an exploited labor class — a tool of convenience that provides universities flexibility and cost savings. And what happens when people become tired of exploitation? They unionize.

In the 2018 book "Professors in the Gig Economy: Unionizing Adjunct Faculty in America," numerous authors examine the national labor movement that resulted in 35 collective bargaining agreements being ratified between 2010 and 2016. As a result, some adjuncts have achieved higher wages, better benefits, and greater job stability.

Despite these important gains, critics claim the unionization movement has done little to meaningfully change the contingency nature of adjunct employment.

The Future of the Adjunct in Higher Education

As an adjunct myself, I've never considered making a move to the ranks of full-time faculty, assuming that's even possible. Like many part-timers, I teach courses related to my profession, offering students insights from the trenches that complement what they learn in books and articles. These "pracademics" add special value to the curriculum in certain fields and are quite often perfectly happy maintaining their part-time status.

Yet for another class of faculty, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, teaching is Plan A. So many adjuncts enter and exit graduate school eyeing a career doing what they love — teaching students and immersing themselves in university life.

They tire of hearing comments suggesting no one is forcing them to remain on this treadmill, that they chose this path fully aware of the flooded and difficult academic job market, and that they should finally consider giving it all up and doing something else. They love their field and want to teach, and they'll cling to the faint hope it'll all work out someday.

For most, it won't. But perhaps their conditions will continue to improve through collective bargaining and the growing realization on campuses and beyond that these dedicated academics deserve better.

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