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There's been a series of articles recently [1,2,3,4,5] that basically decry the dismal working conditions of adjunct faculty.

I would like to ask: Why do these positions pay so little? Is it because there is a vast amount of oversupply of teachers? Is it because the Universities have such a diverse range of topics to cover that they cannot afford to hire full-time instructors to cover these courses? Is it because there is decreasing income and funding for academic institutions?

I am curious about what conditions led to this situation where adjunct professors are paid so little.

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I would add to the question - how many hours do adjunct faculty work? Converting salaries to hourly rates, is the pay of an adjunct faculty comparable to that of full-time teaching staff? –  Moriarty Dec 12 '13 at 23:11
While I think this is a great question in general, this is really at the edge of what's an acceptable question for this site. The question scope is far too broad, and the topic very likely to generate a lot of discussion with few concrete answers, if any. –  eykanal Dec 13 '13 at 1:00
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6 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The adjunct model seems to be predicated on an assumption that most adjunct faculty are presumed to be employed somewhere else. It's supposed to be a win-win: the institution gets a qualified expert with current, out-of-the-ivory-tower experience; the adjunct gets a chance to scratch a teaching itch, or to work with the university. All this happens for a modest compensation – which turns out to be a bargain for the university, and a little extra pocket money for the adjunct.

I didn't read all five of the articles you linked to in your question, but I did look through three of them. They seemed to be focusing on the depressing conditions for those who are trying to make a full-time living through a collection of part-time teaching assignments. I don't think that's the way the system was ever intended to operate.

Where I teach, I'm an adjunct, and I love the perks. I get to use the campus gym, and I get access to campus library resources. I have a passion for teaching, but I don't get to do much teaching at my full-time job. The extra money hasn't made me wealthy, but it's led to a few lifestyle improvements and splurges for my family. $9,000 isn't enough to live off of, but it goes a long way when you want to renovate a kitchen, take a vacation, or help pay for a wedding.

Moreover, where I teach (a state university in the U.S.), the adjunct rates are not set by the department. The going rate is the going rate, take it or leave it.

My brother once asked me how much my adjunct job paid per hour, if I factored in prep time and grading time. I told him that I never bothered to calculate that, but it didn't matter, because I enjoyed my duties too much to give it up. I'm fortunate in that I'm not doing this for the money, so even the relatively low pay is very much appreciated. I enjoy the challenges of teaching, the chance to experiment with new pedagogies, and the chance to make an impact on the future.

Let me put it this way: Teaching two nights a week for fifteen weeks? $3,000. Staying up until midnight grading final exams? Zero extra dollars. Getting an email from a student from two years ago, telling you about how she's using stuff from your class at her new job? Priceless.

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"predicated on an assumption that most adjunct faculty are presumed to be employed somewhere else" +1 –  Irwin Dec 14 '13 at 0:41
But the fact of the matter is that many adjuncts do scrap several positions over several universities. To take the position, well that's not who the jobs are intended for, is completely unhelpful. I agree with you that its great to teach a class or two while in a job that doesn't involve much teaching. However, most people in good research or industry jobs choose not to do this. People like you, on average, are not the people filling adjunct positions. That said I really like your attitude about teaching. It's refreshing! I wish I had more adjunct teachers like you when I was in undergrad. –  MHH Jan 19 at 15:08
@MHH - Completely unhelpful? The question was about pay (or lack thereof), and I think my answer helps explain why the pay is so low (or, put another way, why some are willing to do it for so little pay). But thanks for your kind words about attitudes toward teaching. –  J.R. Jan 19 at 17:19
Oh yes, sorry, my emotions about the adjunct system clearly got the best of me. I agree that people who are willing to supplement their jobs may help explain the low pay, but I actually think its mainly a dangling carrot of one day receiving a tenured track faculty position that causes the pay to be driven down so low. –  MHH Jan 19 at 17:42
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I believe the answer is simply one of supply and demand. As you mentioned in your question, there is an oversupply of those willing to teach. As the old saying goes, those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. While this saying does not represent my feelings I did find it a quite typical American perception toward the teaching profession.

Years ago I taught as an adjunct in the US. The hourly rate (just for teaching hours, forget prep, marking, etc.) was so low that I could make literally four times as much working in 'the real world.' The math was quite easy to see. They needed someone with lower skills than I had and while I could do the job, so could most others.

As you can imagine, I didn't stay in that situation long. I stopped teaching at universities and focused on the private sector. Those whom I taught alongside felt like they were lucky to have their opportunities (I clearly felt differently).

If you scan websites for teachers (e.g., the Chronicle, etc.) you can see countless posts of teachers complaining that some other teacher took their job. Sometimes it is a full time teacher who wants extra money so they pick up adjuncting at another school. This constant oversupply naturally pushes rates down.

So, why would schools pay more than they need to? Out of the goodness of their hearts? In the US, sadly, teachers are not valued. If you look at Europe or Asia, (average) teachers actually make quite a nice living because they are valued for the dual-professionals that they are (subject matter and pedogogy).

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Some quibble with the quip about "those who can, do, those who can't, teach", as this somewhat muddles the issue. E.g., low-level or remedial math is eminently do-able by essentially everyone. That's not the question. High-level mathematics is non-trivial to teach, but that's not what adjuncts do, with very few exceptions. Your other points about market for low-level math teaching are on the mark. –  paul garrett Dec 13 '13 at 0:15
@paulgarrett My point about "those who can..." was not my personal opinion but rather the way Americans tend to view teaching as a profession. As a teacher myself (in Asia) I believe that it is a great challenge to be a dual-professional (subject matter expert and pedagogical expert) and it is the more (not less) qualified people who should be doing it. –  earthling Dec 13 '13 at 0:31
Ah, ok. Perhaps that context, and your disavowal, could have been made more clearly up-top? ... Thx. –  paul garrett Dec 13 '13 at 0:46
I don't know about your area. Recently in Taiwan, the situation is going the way America has been in the past. People call adjuncts "homeless teachers". First, it occurred in middle/high schools. Now, it spreads into universities. The only thing that is little different from America is that they are still viewed as one of the most respectable professionals. –  scaaahu Dec 13 '13 at 7:23
I do find it surprising that there is such a supply of "qualified" teachers for many of these topics, but this may be also a product of a University administration's lack of concern for teaching quality. –  Irwin Dec 13 '13 at 19:12
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In addition to other useful comments and answers: in my context, of mathematics... : yes, only a very small fraction of "adjunct" teaching is done because of lack of expertise of "regular faculty". Examples would often be "financial math" or "actuarial math". Far more typically, adjuncts teach very low level math. Now, on one hand, while the mathematics itself is very easy, reaching the audience is non-trivial. Full of pre-existing neuroses, etc. Although the typical adjunct teaching such things has very modest mathematical ability, that is more than sufficient, and, typically, such a person's ability to "connect" to "normal" kids who're "having trouble with math" is greater than that of talented mathematicians. (Tho' not always.)

True, "The Market" observes that there are many more people able to do this than the number of jobs, so the pay is depressed. It doesn't help that there is a mythology in (academic?) mathematics that teaching itself is something anyone can do, perhaps after one has lost the "zip" to "do research". All the more ridiculous that this mythology exists among people who's teaching is awful, at every level, their whole life. Luckily, their job description emphasizes "research".

But the mythology, seemingly confirmed by The Market, marginalizes (non-specialty) adjuncts. At my current institution, none of the (non-specialty) adjuncts has a Ph.D., which further reduces their status.

And then there is the current budget squeeze on universities... Everything has to be done more efficiently, etc. Departments' supply budgets are cannibalized to pay for office staff, etc. It is crazy. Night-school classes, once paid for through separate budget lines, have been "in-loaded", so have to be covered by departments often with the same budget as before (!) So, hardly the time to think about equity for people who're willing to "work cheap".

The AAUP has long argued for better treatment of "adjunct faculty", but harsher economic times are not fertile grounds...

For that matter, often the real competition for adjuncts is grad students as Teaching Assistants, who are "more expensive" if their tuition is included in the package. Thus, at best, adjuncts have some incentive to keep their pay below that of grad students + tuition. A crazy dynamic.

It is true that the volatility of enrollments gives management incentive to find a way to avoid liability... but in the dim past there was simply consistent excess capacity, not so much a population willing to absorb that volatility!

Nowadays, upper echelons of the university almost make it against-the-rules to cushion people (other than tenured faculty) against volatility...

Not a happy situation.

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I wonder if this is why big R1 private universities pay their adjuncts a bit better. Grad students + tuition at these schools is expensive, >50k a year! Forget tuition, some grad students have stipends of 30k if they teach or are on a grant during the summer. I would not be surprised if the average adjunct makes less than the grad TA stipend per class. I've never seen the grad TA stipend less than $6,500 per semester. It is common to see adjuncts paid less than that. I think that would be a pretty good law to institute. It should be illegal to pay an adjunct less than the grad stipend! –  MHH Jan 19 at 14:32
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In my experience, adjunct faculty are employed part-time, and thus cannot be paid at the same rate as full-time faculty. Often a university department has a set allocation for the number of full-time faculty it can employ, based on predicted enrollment. So, adjunct faculty pick up the slack, as needed, based on actual enrollment.

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yes, but to reach a tenured faculties salary they would have to teach 10-40 classes a semester. That is how low they are paid! –  MHH Jan 19 at 14:35
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The answer to this question probably varies quite a bit from one institution to another, although there would be some things in common.

I'm tenured at a community college in California. Here are the main factors that I think explain why adjunct faculty at my school are paid less:

  1. Full-time faculty are unionized and have a fairly effective union. Adjuct faculty do not have effective union representation.

  2. Full-time faculty have many duties that adjuncts do not. They keep scheduled office hours, go to division meetings, perform miscellaneous contractual duties such as sitting in the bleachers at graduation, and do committee work (hiring committees, faculty senate, curriculum, ...). I teach science, so part of my work involves helping to keep our lab curriculum going (retiring old labs and developing new ones, participating in discussions of what equipment to buy, ...).

Is it because there is a vast amount of oversupply of teachers?

At a community college, I don't think supply and demand have much explanatory value. We don't do research at a community college. Part-timers have to do the same classroom work as teachers, and the non-classroom work doesn't require any special qualifications. Therefore the supply is the pretty much the same in both cases. Supply and demand may explain more at fancy research universities, where tenured jobs require exceptional creativity and research ability.

In addition to the rational reasons I listed above, there are probably many irrational ones. For example, community colleges may simply be emulating fancy research universities, or the structure may have become "baked in" as part of how society is organized.

Is it because there is decreasing income and funding for academic institutions?

I don't think this works as an explanation, at least here in the US. The use of adjunct faculty arose between about 1950 and 1970, and I don't think it's changed much in the last 40 years. The period of 1950-70 was not a period of disinvestment in education in the US; on the contrary, that period saw a huge increase in the amount of money flowing through higher education.

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Thanks for the insight. I am not sure if doing departmental service is the only explanation for the pay difference - I'm sure that if doing service meant that your salary would triple or quadruple, many people would pick up that in a heartbeat. That leaves the union explanation then, at least in this answer. –  Irwin Jan 22 at 1:24
@Irwin: Your logic doesn't work, for two reasons. (a) You seem to be arguing that of causes 1 and 2, 1 is insufficient to produce the observed effect, and therefore 1 doesn't exist. The insufficiency of 1 would imply only that something else like 2 must exist as well -- not that 1 doesn't exist. (b) You seem to be imagining a situation in which there is an efficient market for departmental service, so that the additional pay it earns is equal to its value in a market made by all faculty in some pool. This is certainly not the case. –  Ben Crowell Jan 23 at 2:52
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The model of why adjunct positions are needed is two Ideas:

  1. real world, practitioner, industry background to augment academic background of PhD TT (or, just as often, master's degree, at the time this model was crafted) faculty;
  2. sporadic need.

The facts though are that

  1. applies to regularly needed faculty (instructor with legal practice teaches course in tort law)
  2. applies to faculty who make use only of academic training but are used for overflow (freshman composition).

The bundling of these two ideas together is because they both mean dramatically reduced cost and commitment on the part of the institution, something that the tenure system makes all but impossible. That's how the adjunct position "augments" the value of the "regular" (at one time, majority) faculty. "Win-win" was a subterfuge from the beginning. The "misuse" of adjunct positions was there from the beginning, willfully, but only now gets greater attention because of numbers.

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