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The plight of adjuncts who now make up 76.4 percent of all college faculty and teach a majority of all courses is the shameful, dirty little secret of higher education. (Photo: Tumblr)

Will Teach for Food

Gary Olson

I recently asked my class on “U.S. Workers in the Global Economy,” what they knew about adjunct professors. One student hesitantly responded, “Aren’t they lawyers, judges, and other professionals who teach a course on the side because they like the experience?”

This is a common misconception shared by the general public. I explained to the students that while non-tenure track professors, known as adjuncts, are among the most talented and effective college and university teachers on any campus and cover a full load of courses (or more) many rely on public assistance to get by.

"It’s not hyperbole to name this system for what it is: labor exploitation."

Median adjunct pay in the United States is $2,700 per course. At eight courses per year (above a full load) that is $21,600. The official poverty rate for a family of four is $23,500. One-quarter of adjunct workers’ families receive public assistance. Others avoid reliance on food stamps, food banks, and mounting credit card debt only by taking 2-3 additional low-wage jobs.

I’m tempted to characterize this situation as the academic equivalent of Starbucks’ workers, but baristas actually earn more money and enjoy benefits. The Walmartization of higher education is a better analogy: Hire cheap labor to cut costs. Colleges are modeling corporate America’s behavior and for identical bottom line reasons.

And consider this fact. Public assistance for low-paid workers is really a huge taxpayer subsidy to employers, allowing them to hire low-wage workers. Walmart benefits from this public subsidy to the tune of $6.2 billion a year for its “associates” who are unable to support their families. Taxpayers make up the difference. Estimates for total adjuncts public assistance run to half a billion dollars a year.

Factoring in the time commitments a dedicated adjunct performs, including grading, preps, e-mailing students, rewrites of papers, office hours (but no office) and travel time between colleges, the pay is less than minimum wage. In addition, adjuncts lack the protection of academic freedom and can be fired without cause. But it’s not all bad – an adjunct from Vermont reports that she’s “allowed to get free coffee in the dining room before 11 a.m. if she brings her own cup.”

The plight of adjuncts who now make up 76.4 percent of all college faculty and teach a majority of all courses is the shameful, dirty little secret of higher education. It’s not hyperbole to name this system for what it is: labor exploitation.

When I began teaching in 1974, 70 percent of faculty positions across the country were held by tenured or tenure-track professors. Today, tenure-track jobs are scarce and positions are filled by desperate, low-wage adjuncts. Concurrently, careful studies show that between 1990 and 2012, the ratio of faculty per administrator has decreased by 40 percent. Many of these new administrators work, to some degree, on marketing a product. Salaries at the high end of this burgeoning bureaucracy are a cause of the outrageous cost of a college education. That is, whereas colleges once were faculty-centered with a mission to foster critical thinking and a search for the truth, many institutions now aspire to emulate four star resorts, competing for and catering to students as customers, not unlike any other service industry.

[Note to prospective college students and their parents: after touring the manicured grounds, swimming pool and opulent student center, ask the tour guide about the percentage of courses taught by part-time faculty. If necessary, do some independent research.]

One solution is to create more tenure-track jobs. More realistically, adjuncts need to organize, join a union and demand a living wage. Adjuncts across the nation from the University of Oregon to Georgetown University have done so and 22 percent of adjuncts are now union members.

I don’t presume to speak for adjuncts but it’s my sense that $7,000 per course is a start. Tufts University, near Boston and a relatively wealthy institution, recently signed a union contract with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) giving adjunct professors $7,300 to $8,769 per course depending upon years of service. Additional compensation is set aside for advising and funding for professional development. Longer term contracts and a guaranteed interview for any permanent openings are in the new contract. To succeed, adjuncts need support from regular faculty, the general public and of course, students.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Gary Olson

Gary Olson

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. His most recent book is "Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain" (NY: Springer, 2013.) Contact:

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