Surprise: Your College Professor Might Be on Welfare

April 1st 2015

Ashley Nicole Black

Becoming a college or university professor is hard work. You might think that after completing years of graduate school, publishing papers, and surviving an arduous job market, your favorite professor has finally won a university job complete with a six figure income and an endless supply of tweed jackets and cardigans. But those days are long over. To cut costs, colleges and universities are scaling back on tenure-track positions and relying more heavily on adjunct professors to carry a majority of the teaching load. According to the American Association of University Professors, "more than three of every four instructional staff positions (76 percent) are filled on a contingent basis." Data also indicates that the median pay for an adjunct professor is about $22,000 per year. A recent study from UC Berkeley found that about 25 percent of part-time college faculty rely on public assistance. Professors today are doing the exact same job as decades ago, but salaries have declined dramatically from decades ago.

What is it really like to be an adjunct professor? We asked one.

Laura is a "full-time" adjunct professor. "Full-time" is in quotes, because she works full time- but to save money her employer designates her as a part time employee. She has chosen not to reveal her last name because... well, read on and you'll see why.

ATTN: What do you do for a living?

I work as an adjunct instructor at a community college.  I teach English composition, English literature and occasionally creative writing.

ATTN: What kind of training did you receive for your job? Did you pay for this training with loans?

I received an MFA in 2009 from the New School.  I worked for the school full time while I was in school, so I was able to finance my master's degree with the tuition reimbursement benefit as part of my job.  I am incredibly lucky to have had this, because otherwise I'd have a five to six figure loan to pay off right now.

ATTN: Are you an employee? Contractor? Freelancer? Do you get health insurance, or other benefits?

I am considered a "9 month instructor" - not full time.  I get no benefits - in fact, they recently cut our hours in order to avoid having to give us health care benefits.  

ATTN: How much do you get paid?

I get about $22.66 an hour for ONLY my instruction time - in other words, if I am not in the classroom teaching, I am not being paid.  Usually, most classes are about 3 hours per week of instruction time, with 1.5--3 hours of prep work needed per class (depending on whether I'm just writing lecture slides or doing that plus grading.)  They also expect us to attend a campus meeting at the beginning of every semester, which is unpaid time, and we are sometimes given additional work. Most of the time this is unpaid.

Ed. Note: Please pay careful attention to the math here. If Laura is paid for 3 hours of instruction time, and is unpaid for 1.5-3 hours of prep work... she is only paid for about half the time she spends working.

ATTN: Are there expenses associated with doing your job that you have to incur?

Child care for the days I work, which is about $90/day.  The biggest expense I incur is the extra day of childcare I have to pay for in order to do my prep work and grading for class - so, that's $90 for a day in which I'm not getting paid but I'm working for them anyway.  I also don't get a campus computer or printer, so I have to use my own - so the cost of my laptop ($1900) and my printer ($500) were both incurred by me.

ATTN: How are you treated at your job? By employers? By students?

To be honest, at the start I really felt I was treated well.  We had a department chair who was quite respectful of adjuncts, encouraged us to communicate with her, helped us with our career development and asked very little of us beyond what was required.  However, that changed recently when our provost changed- he came in and switched a number of people in administration positions, and I noticed that the climate became very fearful and hostile among the full-time faculty.  Eventually that trickled down to adjuncts.  Suddenly we were having trouble getting access to resources - there would be a last-minute decision to "cut costs" by telling us we couldn't use the copier for the rest of the semester, or they would take away our shared adjunct work spaces because they were redesigning all the faculty work spaces.  Eventually we were given a series of cubicles with no computers, or broken computers not connected to a printer, etc.  At the moment, it is very difficult to find a workspace on campus with a functional computer and access to a printer/copier.  I've given up, and just use my home printer and try to copy as little as possible and as quickly as possible. In light of the Affordable Care Act, the community college system in our state responded by cutting the number of hours we were able to teach as adjuncts, in order to avoid giving us health care. This left a lot of us scrambling to make up the hours elsewhere, and it was perceived as a very clear sign of how we were valued as employees.  The climate has really changed - I'd say it has become a very head-down-mouth-shut kind of atmosphere there right now.  We can't unionize because of state laws, so we are forced to just accept it and keep going, or quit and do something else.

Students treat me pretty well - but they often do not know what's going on with faculty. They don't know, for example, that when their tuition goes up, we rarely every get any portion of that increase. They don't know I don't get paid for any extra time with them outside of class. As other adjuncts have written about, this is the silent part of academia - we don't tell them, they don't ask, and no one discusses all of our unpaid work.

ATTN: If there was one thing about you, your job, that you could tell the community you serve, what would it be?

I love teaching. I'd love to do it full time for the rest of my life. But I don't think it is fair to expect someone to accept these kinds of conditions - the shrinking job market, the low pay, the life of near-poverty, the treatment by the institutions themselves.  I could go into the K-12 public school system and probably encounter similar conditions, so it doesn't really feel like an option to me.  If we really want to value education in this country, we need to value educators, and that means compensating them fairly and treating them like the professionals they are.  I am good at what I do - my observations and evaluations have all been excellent - but I am being driven out of this profession and so are many teachers like me.  This drain of talent out of teaching will have devastating consequences for this country, so I wish people would realize that.  

ATTN: What are some common misconceptions about your work?

One misconception many students have is that I have some control over what I'm teaching - I really don't.  I don't choose the textbooks (which are often highly priced and changed every year to keep the textbook companies getting profits), and I don't get to create the course objectives.  Most adjuncts are in a similar position - we have very little control or say over what goes on in a curricular capacity.

People also think this is a life of leisure - they still have this idea of the tweedy professor strolling in to teach a few classes in the afternoon.  Few people realize that we have to teach hours and hours each week just to make enough money to afford food and housing.  Some people teach 30-40 hours a week (not including prep time and grading, which they do on the weekends), just to scratch out a bare subsistence living for themselves and pay the minimum on their loans.

Finally, some full time faculty assume that we are adjuncts because we are failures in some way - and that their status as a full time faculty member is some sign of higher quality in their academic work.  I think if people really had to confront just what was going on in higher education - especially those more fully invested in it as career academics - they'd recoil from what's happening and speak up.  The system is dying and it is a real shame that full-time tenured faculty are letting this happen when they actually have the relative freedom to say something.