Who’s Teaching College?: The Adjunct Professor Problem Has Not Improved

“It’s bad, Laura. It’s not good at all.” Not exactly what we wanted to hear from the contractor who found massive rot under our bathroom floors. 

Having completely blown the bathroom budget this week, I opened up a LinkedIn email advertising for an adjunct professor position at the community college down the road. After doing a little sleuthing, I figure out that this job was not going to be a great way supplement my freelance work. The pay was lower than what I earned as an adjunct in New York City twenty years ago. 

Most people only have the vaguest notion of who is teaching their college kids. With some movie version of a professor in their head, they assume that a senior scholar is in the front of the lecture hall, and that he is well compensated for years of experience, education, and talent. They might think that the $80K college price tag translates to big bucks for faculty. Sadly, that’s not the case. It’s much more likely that your kid’s English professor is living in poverty.

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27 thoughts on “Who’s Teaching College?: The Adjunct Professor Problem Has Not Improved

  1. It feels like the stats on adjuncts are another example of the range of institutions that comprise colleges and universities and in the difference in experiences in different majors and classes even at the same institution.

    I can’t find stats on individual classes (say, the number of intro biology classes taught by adjuncts, as one example) but I did find this site (https://www.collegefactual.com/colleges/rutgers-university-new-brunswick/academic-life/faculty-composition/) that purports to report %full time, % tenure track, %adjunct/part time for different institutions.

    Our state flagship is reported as having 21% non-tenure track/part-time/adjunct teaching staff; New Jersey’s flagship is reported at 45% (which is lower than, but close to the average of 51%). I’d guess, for both of these schools, that the intro classes and intro classes that some students might not take because they place out of them (calculus, for example) are taught by adjuncts and, I don’t know about the intro in non-science classes, where students might be required to take them.

    The two institutions (both private, need blind, and meet full need schools) my kiddos are reported at 9% and 11%.

    I’m guessing though that all of these schools might not include standard teaching assistants who are enrolled in school programs (both undergraduate and graduate) in the mix of instructional appointments. At least one school that I know of the undergraduate TAs are trying to organize a union, saying they are being responsibilities comparable to that of instructors.

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    1. A friend of mine with a daughter at Harvard was PISSED off because the big name professor, who was listed as the primary professor, only actually taught a handful of the classes during the year. Most of time, he was collecting private speaking fees around the country. His HAs did all the teaching.

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    2. That’s not happened to either of my kiddos (who are not at Harvard). TAs in technical classes, especially in CS (which has grown tremendously as a major) is part of the model, though.

      And, some of the really big names only teach occasionally (so no classes at all listed for a term or a year). But, they haven’t encountered a listed professor who didn’t teach the class.

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    3. Also, note that the stat doesn’t say what percent of classes are taught by adjunct instructors v faculty, which is another necessary stat.

      If adjuncts really did have loads of 5/semester and tenured faculty 1/semester (if that), adjuncts could be teaching most of the classes. I remember an article a while ago, maybe by the Notre Dame history chair? who said that faculty hires now negotiated for the lowest teaching requirements possible, with Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford setting the standard which made managing the teaching (especially undergraduate) near impossible.

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  2. I think my point is that college isn’t dying as a desirable good. The expensive, highly-rejective, aid providing schools are still providing what you describe in the “olden days”, on the whole, in my experience (though not perfectly). They may be providing less of the connections and coddling of the average student and less of the “family”, but they are mostly providing instructors who don’t have to use food banks, opportunities, and the name brand credential. All of those makes the playing field even more unequal.

    I’ve also seen plenty of students go through our state flagship and succeed by many measures (from the economics of finding desirable employment right after college, to admission to graduate/professional programs, and even find faculty employment at higher ranked universities). But, those are students who actively worked to access all the opportunities and chose their classes carefully and performed at the top of their classes. And, our state flagship is on the lowest end of %adjuncts, for a state university. Again, a less equal playing field.

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    1. I do believe whole heartedly that underpaid, over-taxed instructors, teachers, caregivers will perform poorly in ways that impact the service (college, K-12 school, preschool, daycare, nursing, home care) . . . .

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    2. And, over-taxed meant asked too much of as opposed to literally paying too much taxes (though I do think the SS tax plays a relevant role in over taxing).

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  3. In our recapitalization of privilege, I’ll keep this in mind. I don’t know if the guidance counselor will track it.
    The other day I was walking across the campus where I used to work and was asked if I wanted information about the union. I guess I still look like university staff.

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    1. I would be surprised if any guidance counselor was tracking this information — and, even the numbers I found do not tell the full story. The Columbia ranking scandal wasn’t the same number (the number of classes with < 20 students, which Columbia reported as 83% but was really 57%) but the proportion of undergraduate-facing contingent, under-paid workforce is at least as complicated.

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  4. I guess I’m still surprised that after 20+ years of cautionary blogs, high-profile coverage of the woes of grad students and adjuncts, years of media coverage of crushing student loan debt, and easily accessible data about job prospects, people are still flinging themselves into the maw of the academic humanities.

    I saw someone on Twitter today express shock and dismay that a university wasn’t paying for one of his friends to travel to an on-campus job interview. Why do aspiring academics persist in believing that they’re entering a supportive, nurturing, mentally healthy line of work? They have access to tons more information than my cohort had 25 to 30 years ago, but they’re not making better decisions.

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    1. I think students are making different decisions but not enough to make the stories of exploitation go away. It’s still true that for many that academic job is the pie in the sky prize and that you can’t get there without the PhD. I think there are still some less savvy folk (1st gen folk, for example, who profs are also less willing to discourage) who might get trapped unknowingly.

      These days, bio and physics (basic science) PhDs know about the challenges of academic jobs as well. And, really, bio PhDs (which I have) are not all that different from the humanities. The area of specialization is very narrow and in some fields might transfer to other work but in some fields not more so than the writing/research/organization skills of some PhDs (in history?) transfer to other work.

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    2. When discussing the kids I know I discuss the math (how many jobs, how often they open, . . . ), the career (increasing casual labor), the demographics (fewer students, fewer jobs), the geography (it’s not going to change that you have to go where the job is) and say they should 1) not pay for their PhD — if they have to because of geography or where they get in, don’t go 2) have a plan b and a timeline for that plan. You do not usually become more employable with time even if you do things.

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    3. I used to think that with enough information, the adjunct supply would dry up.

      But, I don’t think it will. I think there are some people for whom the adjunct is an adjunct (they have other resources) and that there are enough people who are still dreaming (like waiters auditioning for acting) and enough people who don’t hear the message or think that they are special.

      Ultimately I think the kind of teaching that Laura describes, charismatic lectures (which I don’t particularly value — I hate sitting still to listen), good facilitation of discussion and growth (which I think Laura does really well in her newsletters) and teaching people who don’t just naturally learn the material (in STEM, but maybe in writing/reading/analysis as well) is insufficiently measurable in economic terms to be valued in a compensation system. So, it’ll always lose out to systems where your value can be measured by some success outcome that people think worth paying for.

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      1. bj said, “But, I don’t think it will. I think there are some people for whom the adjunct is an adjunct (they have other resources) .”

        I actually just threw my hat into the ring.

        I’m auditing a Russian course and the professor (a chair) asked everybody to come make an appointment to talk about our futures. I heard that, thought, I’m everybody, too, and went and told the professor that I am interested in adjuncting for them. He said that they do hire adjuncts from time to time.

        I have an MA in Russian (bailed out of a PhD program), took about an 11 year break from Russian, but have really jumped into it the past year. I’m realizing that I actually have a lot to offer.

        There have been times where a little money would have been nice (three kids in private school! lots of therapy expenses!), but we’re getting close to the point where we don’t really need it.

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  5. The descriptions of the plight of the adjunct professors in the chronicle article (I feel like the same article could have been written when 11D had its first articles about adjuncts) is economic exploitation but I have to say I am not more moved by that plight than I am of similar plights described by childcare workers and paraprofessionals in schools and teachers in states like West Virginia and Missouri. I don’t think credentialing to be a significant measure of much of the work of teaching, so I don’t think CC instructors should be paid more think K-12 teachers solely because of their PhD.

    I think all of those people should be paid a fair, living wage. And then, we can talk about the market doing its work paying people based on whether you can find the workers to do the work and whether they add value. And then we live with the consequence that some jobs are more likely to compensate the best workers the most money. An MD friend used to say that when the stock market went up/startup funds were available, med school applications dropped, because some people would go to the money not the service.

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  6. On an entirely different topic – I’m sad that your bathroom is going to cost more because of rotting wood – but, really happy you didn’t find out by falling through the floor (which happened to my cousin!)

    Better to know these things – even if paying for them is a scramble.

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      1. A friend’s ceiling collapsed on her dining room, due to bathroom rot from the floor above. So look on the bright side–it could be worse!

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  7. One up side to a rural state university is that there are very few adjuncts paid only by the course. We have a small number of instructors who are full time but not tenure-track, but only for composition (sometimes taught by English grad students, though quite a few TT and T faculty teach it) and maybe public speaking are there per-course adjuncts. This is also the result of a unionized faculty.

    One of my friend’s dads had a long and fairly lucrative career teaching full time, I think in computer science, at a CC, retiring back in the 90s. I wonder what his program looks like now. I also knew a teacher at an excellent private high school who enjoyed teaching a class at a CC for almost nothing; I think it duplicated his hs prep pretty closely. And it definitely gave him exposure to a different group of people, which he found interesting.

    If you had known that almost all of Jonah’s courses the first two years at Rutgers would be taught by adjuncts, would you still have sent him there?

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