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.

  • 3
    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, 2013 at 23:11
  • 5
    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, 2013 at 1:00
  • What? You get paid by being an adjunct?! I never got paid. :( Jun 25, 2014 at 18:01

13 Answers 13


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.

  • 17
    "predicated on an assumption that most adjunct faculty are presumed to be employed somewhere else" +1
    – Irwin
    Dec 14, 2013 at 0:41
  • 4
    I think this is a great answer. Too many recent graduates think that the system that just credentialed them now owes them a guaranteed teaching position. +1 for people "trying to make a full-time living through a collection of part-time teaching assignments."
    – Aaron Hall
    May 5, 2014 at 21:31
  • Great answer , I am in a similar situation where I work fulltime and am well compensated so I don't really need the money. But the idea of it still seem very wrong. I was recently offerer an adjunct position that pays 2500 per course. As an undergrad student I was payed 1500 per month. Jun 11, 2015 at 17:06

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).

  • 8
    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. Dec 13, 2013 at 0:15
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    @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, 2013 at 0:31
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    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.
    – Nobody
    Dec 13, 2013 at 7:23
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    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, 2013 at 19:12
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    I think the oversupply comes from researchers struggling to make a living teaching with a dangling carrot in front of them. They assume if they stay in academia there is always a chance they will find a tenured track job some day ... the reality is if you didn't get one within 5-10 years after graduating, it's most likely over for you, baring some major breakthrough, and major breakthroughs are rare while teaching 4 classes a year at different Universities. Jan 19, 2014 at 14:23

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.

  • 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! Jan 19, 2014 at 14:32

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.

  • 2
    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, 2014 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.
    – user1482
    Jan 23, 2014 at 2:52
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    "They keep scheduled office hours" Adjuncts at my school have to keep office hours (though it's scaled to their teaching load). What they don't do is advising and the committee work and so on. Nor is the pay ratio as bad as it is elsewhere, but that may be a function of the regular faculty pay-scale being fairly low in the first place. Nov 6, 2014 at 3:21
  • @dmckee: Practices must vary with respect to office hours. At my school, adjuncts are not required to have office hours, and they wouldn't be able to if they wanted to, because they don't have offices. I often see them sitting in chairs in the lobby before class, with their laptops open, reviewing their lecture notes before class.
    – user1482
    Mar 12, 2016 at 19:59
  • @Ben. Sure, I really meant that there isn't uniformity. And even at places where they get some kind of office space they may not get one of their own; at my place they are put two or three in a single space which means there are some awkward moments when FERPA rears its head. Mar 12, 2016 at 20:04

The reason adjuncts are paid so little is that colleges and universities have become businesses and have adopted the neoclassical economic and neoliberal political positions that encourage the exploitation of workers. (Neoclassical economics and neoliberal policies are not mere labels but specific ideologies that emphasize markets, competition, and individual freedom while failing to regard any collective or communal responsibility. See Harvey, A Brief Introduction to Neoliberalism Oxford UP, 2007) If you want fulltime work in a college or university, go into administration. Administrations have ballooned in the last 30 years. (Can I be so radical to suggest that if the money that had gone into administration had gone into teaching, the problems with student success might not be as severe. But then, do we really want everyone educated to their highest potential?)

Adjuncts, those who teach the most courses and hope for fulltime work, represent the roughly 25% of the workforce that work part time because full time work is no longer available. In other words, being an adjunct merely reflects a pattern consistent with general employment market. Further, U.S. Labor law encourages policies that make all employment at the will of the employer. Fulltime faculty have annual or multi-year contracts. Adjuncts are also contract employees, but only for the specific academic term.

The deeper reason for adjuncts and low adjunct compensation is that education has become a commodity and thus, like factory workers, education in merely inculcating content. You can see how this flies in the face of reams of pedagogical research. There is in the mind of a politician voting on an annual or bi-annual state budget little qualitative judgment about what is needed in a classroom. In Virginia, where I live, the state legislature has failed in the past 20 years to raised college and university funding to meet the growth in enrollment. Even the Democratic governor, elected in 2013, has made sharp cuts in education funding requiring similar cuts in course offerings and adjunct employment. The funding formula twenty years ago where I teach had the state paying 80% of the cost with the student paying 20%. The formula is now the opposite: 20% state and 80% student.

Thus, adjuncts are low paid workers because what they do and who they are is devalued. We are going back to a place in American culture where education and the educated are suspect. We collectively talk a good game about the value and importance of education, but we have lost a deeper sense of what it means to be educated. I often mentally compare being an adjunct to being a medieval monastic or an 18th century journeyman who lack the cultural capital to establish their place in the world.

  • 1
    You mention the recent US trend toward reducing state government funding for higher ed and shifting the cost to students. I'm skeptical about any cause and effect relationship between this and low pay for adjuncts. The use of poorly paid adjuncts in the US dates back to ca. 1970, which would be 40 years before the putative cause. Poorly paid adjuncts also exist at private schools.
    – user1482
    Jan 7, 2015 at 15:33

My wife is an adjunct teacher at a state university. She is paid $3,000 to teach a class that meets twice a week for 15 weeks in Earth Science. That's usually 30 classes divided into $3,000 = $100 per 1 hour 45 minute class. So... she makes about $57 an hour. How is that "getting paid very little?" Now... many people want to tell me that she has to grade homework and tests outside of those hours, answer emails etc. Well there are many professions that have to take their job home with them too. (Real Estate Brokers get emails and calls and have showings and open houses on weekends to name one. Or getting ahead in the corporate world for me has involved after hours extra work, usually more than she has to.) The problem isn't that adjunct teachers get paid so little, it is that they work so few hours.

  • 4
    I will vote this up, but I think it misses an important issue. For someone with a separate job, who teaches one class, $3,000 may be a fine salary. The issue is for those who try to cobble together a living doing nothing but teaching one-off classes. Teaching 6 classes a semester - a very hard load - would be only $18,000, which is $36,000 a year - with no health or retirement benefits. Apr 8, 2015 at 1:12
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    yeah, it's hard for me to grok the question: "How is that 'getting paid very little?'" if very little because its more than 52.5 hours of class contact time. it is class preparation and topic research, devising homework and exam questions, meeting with students, advising them on homework and course content, grading homework and exams. i'll bet it comes to 100 hours and $30/hour comes out to be about equivalent to $60K/year full time for an Earth Science professional. and no benefits like health insurance or retirement investment. Apr 8, 2015 at 2:45
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    The problem isn't that adjunct teachers get paid so little, it is that they work so few hours. I'm full-time at a community college. If your wife taught as many units as I do, paid at the rate you describe, she would be making $30,000 a year, with zero benefits. That is indeed "getting paid very little," for a job that requires a graduate degree.
    – user1482
    Apr 8, 2015 at 5:05

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.

  • 4
    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! Jan 19, 2014 at 14:35

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.


Because they can.

If universities had difficulty finding adjuncts, they'd pay more, but they don't. Sadly, it's all about supply and demand.

  • 1
    Do you have any evidence supporting this purely economic explanation?
    – eykanal
    Jun 25, 2014 at 17:14
  • 2
    If universities had difficulty finding adjuncts, they'd pay more — [citation needed] Or they might abuse a different class of people (like grad students) more instead.
    – JeffE
    Jun 26, 2014 at 0:52
  • @eykanal, it's self-evident. Apr 8, 2015 at 2:46

Adjuncts get paid little because there are enough adjuncts to go for a dime per dozen. The abuse that adjuncts are subjected to is borderline bizarre - in some places front-desk secretaries or assistants are treated with more importance than an adjunct instructor.

  • 2
    This does not add anything to the existing answers.
    – Mangara
    Sep 29, 2015 at 20:11

Supply and demand can't be ignored in answering this question. If there was not a sufficient number of persons willing to take these positions at such ridiculously low pay, then we would not see what we are seeing. That does not mean less willingness to take the job would mean higher paid adjuncts as it could also mean more full-timers and fewer adjunct. However, there are factors beyond pure supply and demand that also play a role. If it was pure supply and demand, and given that a large number of those teaching as adjunct want very much to become full-time tenure track teachers, then we would see tenure track positions also paying very little. All faculty would receive very low pay and the pay difference between tenure track and adjunct would not be so pronounced. Many adjunct want to be tenure track teachers and are therefor willing to endure the low pay for years, paying their "dues", in the hope that the next full-time position will be theirs. The pay differential itself bolsters this desire and pushes up the supply of adjuncts. Also, when the general public looks at professors, they look at full-timers and see someone who makes an OK living; adjuncts are most often not consider as part of the faculty and so get hidden away. Wittingly or not, adjuncts can be exploited without creating a "black mark" for the college. It is also true that adjunct tend to not be well represented by unions. In California, most are part of a union. It's usually the same union that represents the full-time faculty. But the leadership and majority membership of these unions are full-time faculty. Colleges have learned to suppress union efforts to improve adjunct pay by offering instead to improve full-time pay. Such offers, attractive to the majority of the union voters, tend to be supported by the union. So, with adequate teacher supply, a system has evolved that feeds on itself to push up full-time pay, and suppress adjunct pay.

  • When you say "If it was pure supply and demand, and given that a large number of those teaching as adjunct want very much to become full-time tenure track teachers, then we would see tenure track positions also paying very little" it seems like you are saying that the supply of (potential) TT faculty is high because adjuncts are willing to take TT faculty positions. But they don't count toward supply because the university doesn't consider them to be qualified for those positions.... Dec 22, 2014 at 20:21
  • The way this excess of "supply" reduces the pay of TT faculty is when the university starts using adjuncts to (partially) substitute for TT faculty. Of course this happens to some extent, but since the university does not consider them completely interchangeable, one shouldn't expect the pay of TT faculty to fall to that of adjuncts. So the economic analysis in terms of supply and demand curves is still valid, although I agree that it's not the whole picture. Dec 22, 2014 at 20:29
  • This is a wall of text, and not very clearly written. The conclusion seems to be buried somewhere in the final four sentences, but I can't make out what it is.
    – user1482
    Mar 11, 2016 at 20:22

All this analysis isn't necessary though impressive. The answer is greed.

The pay disparity between the adjuncts and full-time faculty/administrators is so wide, it should embarrass them until you understand it HAS to be in order for them to get their high salaries. If the adjuncts get paid less than minimum wage for hours worked, they can give themselves higher salaries.

"It takes three of you to pay my salary" is an exact quote from a retiring full-time community college faculty member who just came out and said this to us in the break room. His salary at retirement? $128,000.

It's pretty simple and comes down to just about what everything comes down to in this country---greed.

  • 3
    Perhaps you could adjust this to be a little more evidence-based and a bit less polemical?
    – jakebeal
    Jun 22, 2015 at 19:39

Schools are not really focused on teaching, per se: universities want to be recognized for research. Research faculty do not want to teach undergrads, they want to work with doctoral students (& get more publications!) But a doctoral program is costly, it eats the revenues produced by undergrads. Schools need big undergrad programs that can be run relatively cheaply to pay the big salaries of research faculty who really don't want to teach at all. This system probably exists because school administrators essentially worked their way up the ranks via research, not by teaching & not with their management/administrative skills (administrators who are good managers and/or good motivators are a bonus..not essential to the position). Once you understand that Universities are really about self-promotion of research and the status that comes from research publications (even if only within the academic community itself) you'll understand that the adjunct (low paid) faculty are absolutely essential. Providing that someone will accept the low wages, there is no reason to pay more.

  • 1
    Research faculty do not want to teach undergrads — [citation needed]
    – JeffE
    May 4, 2014 at 4:13
  • 2
    Layzell, 1992, chronicle of higher ed May 4, 2014 at 4:38
  • @JeffE: it's obviously not universally, invariably true, but it's hardly an original claim or unfamiliar sentiment. May 4, 2014 at 5:01
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    Maybe computer science is weird, but the well-worn claim simply doesn't match my experience. Certainly some research faculty don't want to teach undergrads, but in my experience, most do.
    – JeffE
    May 4, 2014 at 16:32
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    Also, Layzell 1992 actually says "Many state legislators and policy makers believe that faculty members ... care little about undergraduate education". That doesn't make it true, either in 1992 or now.
    – JeffE
    May 4, 2014 at 16:38

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