Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

An ‘Alarming Snapshot’ of Adjunct Labor


When Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from California, launched an online forum asking adjuncts to submit stories of their working conditions, contingent faculty greeted the effort with cautious applause. Finally, a national public figure was speaking up about higher education’s deepening labor gap. But would the talk lead to any substantive action?

Weeks after the forum’s submission deadline, that has yet to be determined. But today Democrats in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, on which Miller serves, weighed in with a 36-page report detailing its findings.

The report draws on 845 stories submitted by adjuncts in 41 states over the course of six weeks. For the most part, it echoes news articles and other recent research on adjunct labor: “Contingent faculty often earn low salaries with few or no benefits, are forced to maintain difficult schedules to make ends meet, face unclear paths for career development, and enjoy little to no job security.”

But it also suggests a possible solution: passage of the Part-Time Worker Bill of Rights Act of 2013, a bill introduced last February that would, among other things, extend Affordable Care Act coverage mandates and family and medical leave protections to part-timers. (The bill was referred to a House subcommittee in April and has languished since.)

This is just one idea, though, and there’s no indication that the bill will soon make headway. Miller said in a statement that he plans to work with fellow committee members, universities and colleges, and contingent faculty to posit more solutions to the “troubling issues.”

The report’s findings will help guide those discussions, said Julia Krahe, communications director for the education and workforce committee.

‘Just-In-Time Professor’

Miller said that the report—"The Just-in-Time Professor: A Staff Report Summarizing eForum Responses on the Working Conditions of Contingent Faculty in Higher Education"—is “in no way an exhaustive account of the circumstances of adjunct faculty,” but it raises “some serious concerns.” It pairs data gathered from the forum entries with anonymous quotes from the respondents.

The respondents, despite varied education and work backgrounds, submitted stories that were largely consistent, Krahe said. While some said their employment situation was better than others, citing union contracts or access to benefits, most shared the same difficulties.

Highlights from the findings include:

Contingent faculty often have low pay and few, if any, benefits. Of the 845 forum respondents, 166 supplied information on how much they are paid per course. Most respondents indicated they made between $2,000 and $3,500 per three-credit hour course. Of the 152 respondents who listed their estimated annual teaching salary, the average was $24,926.

More than 60 respondents reported salaries that would put them beneath the federal poverty line for a three-person family. Some respondents said they were on federal assistance programs like Medicaid or food stamps. One added: “During the time I taught at the community college, I earned so little that I sold my plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for [my child’s] daycare costs.”

On top of low pay, 75 percent of the respondents who discussed the topic said they did not receive benefits—either because their employer didn’t offer them or because they were otherwise ineligible. One adjunct wrote: “The health care plan that I could buy into costs more than my take-home pay on even a good year. My retirement plan is to work until they bury me.”

Most respondents teach several courses per semester and travel among several institutions. Nearly half of the adjuncts who specified their course load taught either two or three three-credit-hour courses per semester. But because some respondents took on many additional courses, the average course load is just over three.

Those instructors are also teaching at multiple universities at a time. Of respondents who gave information about the number of schools they served, 48 percent taught at two institutions, 27 percent taught at three, and 13 percent taught at four or more. Most identified themselves as “freeway flyers.” One respondent said: “My commute at the highest point was 900 miles per week; at the lowest it was only 550 miles per week.”

Adjuncts lack job security and predictable schedules. 95 percent of respondents who spoke on the matter said they had no job stability and did not know whether they would be teaching courses from one semester to the next. Furthermore, some adjuncts said they often find out if they have a course just days before the semester begins.

More than 100 respondents said they have never had sufficient time to prepare for their courses. One wrote: “I taught four courses in the fall, but was not told until the day before spring semester started that I wouldn’t have any classes for the spring. I was unemployed with no notice.”

Adjuncts report receiving little professional support. Several problems were cited frequently: a lack of administrative support, difficulty securing copies of required textbooks and students’ email addresses, limited access to professional-development courses, and inability to participate in departmental meetings.

One adjunct recalled: “Although I’ve been at my ... very decent university job for the past 15 years, a tenured professor asked me, ‘So, you’re teaching for us this semester?’ Why am I not part of this ‘us’ after so much dedicated teaching, year after year?”

Image: George Miller

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  • I was an adjunct for twelve years, using the part-time work to maintain my teaching credentials and providing real-life perspectives to academic theory in the classroom. At no time did I imagine adjunct positions to be anything but supplemental income to my full-time employment. Every adjunct I worked with over five different universities during all those years approached their teaching in the same manner. No one was willing to give up their well-paying employment for part-time teaching. It is my perspective that what we are hearing from the noise is part-time faculty that cannot, or will not get on the tenure track and want to use adjunct teaching as a means to that end. After, twelve years of part-time teaching while enjoying a number of full-time employment positions in different industries that required my talents, I was offered a full-time faculty position. I am happy to say that I love teaching and the twelve years of uncomplaining adjunct work brought me to this opportunity.

    My suggestion would be to master one's area of expertise as well as mastering the tools, techniques, and processes of higher education to position yourself for that full-time teaching position, when the time comes. Oh, by the way, Representative Miller, ever wonder what the ratio of complaints to complements are for restaurants that ask for comments? About the same as your web site asking for complaints from adjuncts. :)

    Marion Tyler Marion Tyler
  • All due respect to Marion, but that does not describe the experiences of the massive majority of adjunct/contingent/precarious labour in the university system. I've been doing it for six years, and there is not only no mechanism for transitioning me to full-time, tenure-track work based on this experience, but there are solid, well-constructed barriers between me and a full-time job. Faculty either doesn't acknowledge our existence or sees us as mouths to feed; only a very small number actually support us. Executive Administrators do their best to keep their feet on our necks: standing in the way of raises that would merely keep pace with cost of living, blocking our efforts to get health care and pensions, keeping us from having any say in the curriculum or our schedules.

    Now, ask yourself this: how can a professor making about $2700 per course, the norm in America, and who doesn't know if he or she even has a job next semester, how can that professor possibly speak out against institutional injustices? Tenure, for all its flaws, preserves the ability for intellectuals to object to the system without fear of being fired. For us adjuncts, they don't even have to fire us. They can just *not hire us* in the next round of applications, which we have to do every semester. Imagine, if you will, reapplying for your job every four months, a job you've been working for five or ten years, and having *no* recourse if they don't hire you back.

    This isn't about "complaining," Marion. This is about the university system being eaten from the inside out, using shrinking budgets as an excuse to silence public intellectuals and turn campuses into factories that churn out willing labourers. It turns an enemy of capitalism into a tool of capitalism, and they're winning.

    Orion Kidder Orion Kidder
  • Orion, the university is "an enemy of capitalism?" Does the business faculty know that? You want to complain about shrinking budgets but then make an announcement that public funding for universities is directly aiding a system that undermines the nature of our society?

    Bruce Mitchell Bruce Mitchell
  • I'm wondering, Marion, what your field is. For many of us in the humanities, especially those of us who spent years getting our Ph.D.s, there are no full-time jobs in our disciplines outside of academe. When I was in graduate school, we were told that the future was rosy, and that, as the majority of professors turned 60, or 65, we'd all have jobs. Well, they arrived at retirement age and still kept working. When they did retire, their departments didn't replace them, but hired several part-time faculty at a small fraction of the salary+benefits package of the previous profs.

    Look at the statistics: do you think that 75% of faculty prefer working for minimal pay with no benefits and with working conditions that befit temps but not professors? Do you think that we are happy to have no offices in which to meet our students? Do you think that we prefer not to have office hours or to take part in curriculum development or governance? Do you think that we don't need or want health insurance or a pension?

    I can't dispute your particular situation, but I know that it's not the situation of most of my colleagues. I'm 67, on Medicare, have a pension from other sources, and I'm content with my one course/semester, but I stand in solidarity with those in the precariat who want, need, and deserve more.

    Betsy Smith/Adjunct Professor of ESL/Cape Cod Community College

    Betsy Smith Betsy Smith
  • With all of the problems adjuncts have had in the past there are many new ones coming up at present. First of all we can not collect Unemployment Insurance in most states due to the term 'reasonable assurance'. Has the Federal Government ever honestly defined what that means? Now we also have to face a cut in our teaching loads due to ACA, which is going to make our positions even weaker and put even more of us under the poverty level. And if we lose the one or two courses we can teach we will still probably not be eligible for Unemployment. We need a Bill of Rights badly along with equity in pay, benefits and support services. It is about time the Congress is listening to our stories, hopefully they will do more than listen and take some actions.

    Maria Maisto Maria Maisto
  • As adjuncts we have to stop complaining and push harder for legislation.

    Maria Maisto Maria Maisto
  • I work at 3 or 4 Colleges and Universities per semester in order to put a living together. In New Jersey we are called 'roads scholars.' My car is my office and my computers and tablet are my lifeblood to my students. What annoys me is that I can not sit down at a desk with my students and talk to them or help them with their studying. I make it my business to meet with students before classes, after classes and during breaks. I try to check my emails hourly so I address student's problems in a timely manner. I give out my cell number, especially in online courses, so a student can reach me with a problem( my phone goes off at 10 PM and on again around 7 AM). I do not get paid for any of this out of class time and when our Union asked for paid office hours we were laughed at by the administration. 'That is included in what you get paid' they said. Oh, I thought I was getting paid per credit, which is 50-55 minutes per class, 3 times a week, for 15 weeks. Where does the office hours come in. This is an issue that needs to be addressed , along with all other problems, so we can serve our students better.

    Maria Maisto Maria Maisto
  • My 3 previous post showed Maria Maisto as the author. I have no idea why. I am trying again to have my name show.
    Bill Lipkin

    William Lipkin William Lipkin
  • Whew, so much to comment on both around the article and some of the comments. This is not a difficult learning curve, however, for anyone working today in the USA. Anyone working in education, in any field, as a worker, laborer, professional, a PMC, AKA, professional managerial class individual, we know how precarious our lives are in a world where Social Security is attacked, unionizing is considered treason, health care for all paid for by our society is considered socialism, and where the backbone in our society is constantly attacked, eviscerated and pulverized by the vanguard, the financial felons and the mundane and complicit press/slash/media.

    Current and past economic policies rammed down our collective throats by the One Percent and a good chunk of the 19 percent at the top of their feeding pool have brought us to the edge of this precipice: precarious work for the majority; youth disenfranchised through outsourcing, cutthroat-sourcing, and debt-futures; a continuous attack on communities, big and small, trying to build the safety nets of a society with 77 million baby boomers and 79 million millennials almost forced to face off in a dog-eat-dog world of fighting for the last good job in a pool of 1,000 applicants.

    This is not an exceptional, powerful, worthy society, and so many people I work with, write about and teach know it, but they have been colonized by the spectacle and consumerism and a representative democracy that is run by a very few ethically-empty interlopers.

    I've been teaching since 1983, at the college level. Teaching at four schools in while still a graduate student, in El Paso, and working part-time as a journalist and consultant and organizer and community activist. This was my foundation, when college was populated with, oh, around 30 percent part-time faculty or non-tenure track. Go 30 years into the future, now, and it's 75 percent NTT and PT. This has been a project of neoliberalism, stupidity by our under-experienced, under-educated, undermining politicians. This project has been led by Administrators and HR folk and all these hangers on who have created a higher ed system of paper pushers-data hoarders-software lovers-technology fiends-anti-teacher/faculty leaders (sic).

    Here we are, paying people with PhDs diddly squat; pushing youth into debt for barista jobs; gutting culture, reading abilities (AKA critical and participatory thinking), history for a chance at meaningless apps for the even more meaningless IT-Digital Hells to Extinction.

    So, fun stuff here trying to coalesce a very splintered, dichotomous rag-tag group of people, adjuncts, freeway fliers, migrant workers, or as Pablo Eisenberg calls us, "The Untouchables" . . . . in a caste system that has paid off for a few, including tenured faulty, on the backs of real education, the majority educators, and students . . . . Our collective futures.

    So, those futurists and politicians and business class and corporate superstars in our respective states do not have the answers to these problems because they have not coalesced themselves around the people with the answers -- educators, in the trenches, on the frontlines, or, call us adjuncts.

    We face a president who wants more college educated youth, more community colleges doing these fantastic things, yet in a state like Washington (blue, the last time I checked the mainstream mush), well, we have anti-union Amazon and Boeing, and we have false labor stats about an improving economy and with that improvement (sic) less funding for the 34 state community and technical colleges, few students this fall than last fall, and adjunct jobs on the chopping block.

    Continuous cycles of boom or bust do not make for a underpinning of success for two or five or even one generation out.

    So here we are, with hyperbole, out-of-touch thinkers, in 2014, believing adjuncts in the million plus do this because we are hobbyists, or have some fist-full of dollars buried in our backyards, or that people working fast-food jobs are not in need of living wages, or that all those health care workers and service workers are just "doing it as a summer job or while educating themselves in school."

    This is a complicated picture, tied to many economic lies, and many failures by the political class, the lobbyists and the so-called leaders in our states who come aboard education boards and conferences with almost zero experience in this field. The solution to this might be rattling more than just the cages of capitalism. Maybe we need a reinvention of what work is, what duty is, and what value we place on the skills, trades and proclivities of people who actually build community away from the all-mighty profit margin and casino/slash/predatory free marketeering.

    Paul Haeder Paul Haeder
  • It is good to see that there is at least some interest in the predicament adjuncts or (to use the euphemism) contingent faculty find themselves in, which is part of the predicament of higher education itself in declining Western civilization in the early 21st century. I won't tell my life story, except to note that I walked away from an adjunct position that paid me $2,200 per course at best for four courses per semester after seven years at the institution; at one point I was teaching six philosophy courses spread out over three campuses. This after over a decade of bouncing from university to university to university, moving every year to three years, for over a decade before. I am now outside academia, still doing intellectual writing (building a small, home-based business while living very frugally on an inheritance and an investment), accepting my status as an outsider and preparing to let the chips fall where they may.

    What we need is a national conversation on what we want the future of higher education to be, as well as how the people in it are going to be treated. Does American society really want an educated citizenry? Based on observation, I'd say No. Thinking people are not wanted by government because they can see through the BS spewed by the average member of the political class; nor are they wanted by corporations because they tend to ask questions about priorities and externalities. Thinking people don't simply bow to authority. This may explain why the country has been gradually choking its own capacity to educate for as long as I can remember, turning public schools into obedience factories where teachers teach to the test; students come to college unprepared to do what used to be considered college-level work and graduate with five to six figures of student loan debt because they haven't been taught the first thing about personal finance.

    If the U.S. really wants an educated citizenry, institutions are going to have to pay for it. From what I can gather, adjuncts are slowly getting organized and preparing to fight a system that's left them no alternative -- although it's bound to be slow and very precarious going as most of these people know they can be replaced on a whim and don't want to be forced to become unemployment statistics.

    Steven Yates Steven Yates
  • It's obvious that some people need a visit from the Adjunct Terrorist Brigade. Have a nice day!

    Richard Grayson Richard Grayson
  • A preliminary investigation shows that commenter Marion Tyler is a professor at Kaplan University, a for-profit school owned by the Washington Post (now owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon). Source: Linked In

    Kaplan University has been investigated by Congress and the Government Accounting Office for various abuses over the years. Source:

    For more information on Kaplan University's questionable practices, you can start with the institution's Wikipedia page:

    Marion Tyler's comment should be understood in the context of her position with Kaplan University, a very different from the experiences of the vast majority of adjuncts working a public or nonprofit private institutions of higher learning.

    Richard Grayson Richard Grayson
  • Further investigation shows that commenter Marion Tyler's husband, Jeff Tyler, is also a professor at for-profit Kaplan University. Source:

    As I said in my previous comment, Kaplan University is a highly atypical and highly questionable institution of higher education.

    Richard Grayson Richard Grayson
  • While some may choose to dismiss Marion because of where she teaches, that is ignoring the fact she may be making valid points (I believe this is called an ad hominem attack).

    Let me see if I can get this straight: those of us who are adjuncts attended and graduated from programs where those in charge accepted too many applicants for a dwindling number of positions but took our money and didn't give us a realistic picture of the emerging job market.

    Then we took jobs where we were part-time employees for years and years, did the best work we could but were never able to convince our full-time colleagues to use the shared governance that is the cornerstone of our profession to compel and persuade administration to remedy this situation. Now we are complaining to the entity that hasn't earned high marks in recent years in its attempt to rescue K-12 education to make higher education a better place to work.

    Like you, I am frustrated that we are part-time employees who do great work appreciated by our students each day but ignored by fellow faculty and administration. But we have not made the case that it makes sense to hire us full-time when we will do great work even if they only offer a small salary, parking space and a mailbox. I absolutely love what I teach and my college is very gracious to me, but perhaps my case is more rare than commonplace.

    I also hate to say this, but if you have doing a part-time job well for many years and people aren't willing to hire you full-time, then perhaps it is time to take stock of your life and make a career change. I have been full- and part-time faculty at five colleges and two high schools since 2003. If my plans to secure a full-time faculty position again do not work out soon, I likely will enter my fourth career.

    Will it be painful? Yes. Will I be sad and angry? Sure. But I would rather experience those emotions than to languish just short of my goal for decades. It is like someone who is in a long-term dating relationship with a partner who doesn't want to get married. From your point of view, you always will be settling for less. From his/her point of view, he/she is completely satisfied. If we cannot make the argument, then maybe it's time to move on.

    If we want to fix the system, then let's fix the system. Congressional reports are nice, but they won't get us full-time jobs. Movements for societal change do not rest on the shoulders of reports and committee hearings alone. If we are so keen on using politics to solve the problem, let's work the political systems of our own colleges to effect change. Get students to realize the benefits of F/T faculty members and advocate for change. Convince local industry to financially support funding for more F/T faculty. Support trustees who see eye-to-eye with us on this issue. Rally the adjunct faculty to attend college/university meetings where such issues are raised. Begin a real dialogue with the F/T faculty members at our colleges on this issue (maybe even pay for lunch the first time around).

    Dave Milbrandt Dave Milbrandt
  • I think the last comment by Dave is spot-on. I completed my Ph.D. from a school and now realize that I committed myself to a teaching career without looking into my prospects. I understand if undergraduates face these problems this - think art or philosophy majors that can't find a job after graduation. Undergraduates attend to gain professional maturity and should be warned to investigate those things. It is a fair expectation, though, that graduate and doctoral students can investigate career paths on their own. I gave too much attention to my teaching, not enough to publications, and now I'm working to balance those without the support of free access to online journals that I had as a student.

    That being said, my experiences as an adjunct and a visiting professor are consistent with the stories in the article - I just don't completely agree with the implications. Full-time positions with either multi-year or tenure track contracts look for teaching experience, publications (even at low-end state or liberal arts schools), administrative or leadership roles, content development or planning, and evidence of effectiveness. The research is conclusive that the students' evaluations of instruction are poor measures of effectiveness. Leadership roles are very difficult to land as a contracted instructor. Publishing is very difficult without the resources we had as doctoral students.

    I'm left with two possible conclusions, and I can't decide which is most appropriate.
    1) The very top Ph.D. programs produce enough graduates to fill nearly all of the tenure-track positions that exist. Graduates and applicants of lesser programs need to know this and have reasonable expectations.
    2) Community colleges have tenure-track positions that are teaching-only and don't get filled by Ph.D.s from top schools, so there "SHOULD" be a mechanism to develop candidates for those positions (experience with online instruction, adult learners, etc.). I see the best opportunity to do this as full-time, one-year lecturer or instructor positions that offer advising responsibilities and hiring committee roles. Accreditation standards that require more full-time faculty members (fewer adjuncts) are making these more common. All that remains then is getting "evidence" from students or other faculty that instructors can carry with them when they pursue permanent positions. THAT is the only issue that isn't on track to improve already, although I don't see congress having the power to influence it.

    Paul Larson Paul Larson
  • I realize I'm late to this discussion, but I'd like to address those in this discussion who are pushing the idea that the majority faculty in higher ed in the country should just take stock, get another job and stop complaining: 1) your strange misunderstanding of the exploitation of academic labor, 2) your apparently complete lack of interest in the growing movement to expose and reform this system and 3) your inability to see adcon exploitation as just one aspect of a general and unsustainable trend toward the casualization of all labor-- well, it's astonishing. Luckily, no one is relying on this sort of thinking to actually improve things.

    Alan Trevithick Alan Trevithick
  • Ms. Tyler's tone and obfuscation typifies those who view adjuncts as the hired help--this despite admitting that she came from our ranks. Ms. Smith's rebuttal, however, is right on the mark. It bemuses me how liberal elites who determine the status of adjuncts so breezily dismiss their plight but it certainly does not surprise me.

    Steve McGarrett Steve McGarrett
  • Perhaps if more universities eliminated the six figure salaries of mid-level administrators, capped the salaries of full professors and coaches, and actually made a concerted effort to employ full time faculty with benefits rather than rely on part-time adjuncts, we could get a handle on this growing problem. But then that would require more than lip service to empathy for one's struggling colleagues, now wouldn't it?

    Steve McGarrett Steve McGarrett
  • Consider this: Kean University, a fourth tier public institution in New Jersey, pays its President, who has been the subject of repeated investigation, more than 400K annually. Only 23% of the faculty are full-time and on tenure track. The English Department alone employs more than 105 part-time adjuncts and has only 15 full-time professors. What's wrong with this picture?

    Steve McGarrett Steve McGarrett
  • $2,000 and $3,500 per three-credit hour course? Must be nice. Adjuncts with terminal degrees at Indiana's largest community college, Ivy Tech, are paid $1,700 and change for a three-credit hour course with a three course maximum per semester.

    Norman Minnick Norman Minnick
  • parsian music parsian music