How an adjunct college teacher can be a worse hourly paying profession than a McJob

AdjunctRecently the news has been ablaze with fast food workers stepping out of their jobs and into the role of picketers. This has caused some politicians to call for a national minimum wage hike to $10 which is a bit short of the $15 the workers are asking for. Some say the fast food workers should be happy to receive a below living wage for their work since they aren’t skilled workers. That is the camp I would like to address because it is that camp that is holding back more than the average McDonald’s employee.

If I would tell you that there is a skilled – highly skilled – workforce being exploited more than fast food workers in the US, would you believe me? Would your reply be that a worker cannot be highly skilled and still get below a living wage? I think it’s time I shed some light on a lesser known plight in the US – that of the “adjunct instructor.”

What’s an adjunct? Well, imagine having at least a Master’s degree (increasingly a PhD), and wanting to teach, but instead of teaching at just one place full time, you bounce around, sometimes a few colleges per day in order to make ends meet.

These aren’t unskilled workers trying to hold down a job to just survive, these are highly skilled people trying to hold down multiple jobs to survive. How is this possible? Because there is a sickness in American higher education and it is reflected directly from our societal values. Simply put, we don’t value education.

We sure as hell put a huge price tag on it. For example the average US college education costs $22,000-43,000 a year while education for an Out of Country/European Union student going to the UK can be $14,500 a year with many in country people paying far cheaper, but when the whip comes down the value for the buck just isn’t there. Teaching 6 classes at a for-profit institution can sometimes start as low as $25,000 a year in the US compared to 2 classes a semester in Canada for $42,500 a year.

AdjunctThere is another downside for being an adjunct. Okay, I won’t lie, there are several. One is lack of benefits. As a definition, an adjunct is not full time at any institutions, so they are not entitled to benefits from the institutions they work at. Also, most adjuncts do not have an office nor a prep area. This means a lot of work is done from home and out of your car.

The student to teacher ratio is damn right pathetic in many places. I’ve seen both “on site” and “online” courses go over 200 to 1. That’s right, for every teacher who has to teach, grade, and hold between class question fielding (often on the way to their car in order not to be late for their other class across town) there are 200 students to take care of. Let’s say an essay is 4 pages long (not too long at all, but it’s easy math). 4×200=800 pages. That’s right, 800 pages of corrections and reviews to perform by the single teacher by next week’s class.

Oh, and remember, that’s just one of the 5-6 classes that person will teach that week. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Finals all fall under the same week for the different institutions (it usually is a bit close to the same week or within a few days of each other). 800 pages then becomes a “safe” 40,000 pages to correct within a week and this is for part time work – no benefits – and pay barely enough to make rent, own a car and visit those fast food places that get so much news time.

How do I know all of this? Because I was in those trenches. I was one of those who drove to three of the four different colleges I worked for in one day. I was also told by New York State I wasn’t eligible for food assistance because I was an “unemployed employee” of the state due to working at a university and attending classes at the same time. I’ve also been in places that treated their instructors like commodities that could be traded and had their contracts “re-engineered” at will.

Is it all doom and gloom? No. There is a reason why I taught. I believe everyone should have the right to an education at all levels. I want to think that just knowing I was making a difference in someone’s (who was paying the most of any country’s enrollment bills) life is enough gratitude to keep teaching. It is, but gratitude doesn’t allow one to afford health care,own a house, pay for a car or have retirement money set aside.

I hope the fast food industry does indeed get their much deserved pay increase; I hope so out of selfish reasons though. You see, I did the math on hours spent vs salary paid one year while teaching those 7 classes. I won’t tell you the exact outcome, but I will give you a hint on who got paid more per hour. It wasn’t the person asking “did you do your homework?,” but rather “do you want fries with that?”



  1. I adjunct half time at a community college, teaching biology and anatomy/physiology to future nurses and health professionals. This is financially possible only because I have another half time job and because my husband earns a good full time salary, with health care benefits, from a private college. Income distribution is pretty f-ed up in the US. It is generally better in Europe, for instance see

  2. I’ve got a question? If money is so limited and resources so scarce, why are administrators and their good old boy appointees making six and seven figure packages every year? When do these “highly qualified” criminals get their pay and benefits cut?

  3. For the administrator above who is SO PROUD to be hiring 100 adjuncts for 140 classes at his/her institution, why don’t you hire a fraction of those people into permanent teaching jobs instead, and you think you are not in a position of exploiting these folks, what a shame.

  4. This is so sadly true. The estimate of 25k is too high though. I once adjuncted at 3 universities and was teaching from 8am until 8:30pm Mon-Fri, less travel time (with about 140 miles of travel per day) and I JUST cleared 24k before taxes. That’s not counting grading and prep, which invariably ate up every weekend. No benefits at all but I did have office space at each, even if I had to share with 4 or 5 other instructors. I felt like I was working non-stop and my students would get frustrated because I was available at very specific times for office hours since my schedule was so tight.

  5. I have been a special ed teacher for 17 years and 10 years away from retirement… I thought about being an adjunct, mainly to share my knowledge/ field experience and perhaps to participate as an assistant in educational research. Your article is very pessimistic, I must say. I have several friends that are currently following this path, so I plan on getting it straight from them. Thanks for your insights.

  6. I have a Ph.D. in Music Education, with minors in Educational Leadership and Development and Educational Research Methodology. I have been teaching as an adjunct professor for the past 5 years at a community college. Here in the state of Virginia, our state legislature recently put a cap on our teaching load in state colleges due to the Affordable Care Act. Adjunct professors are now only allowed to teach 9 hours per semester. We are not allowed to teach 9 hours in one college and 9 hours in another, etc. It’s 9 hours across the board — total!! Why this decision was made under the umbrella of Affordable Care Act, I am unsure. We don’t even receive health benefits or any other full-time faculty benefits anyway….so, why we are the ones who suffered a penalty, I have no idea. Virginia has a new governor as of this year so, I plan to bring out the poison pen and write him a letter. Wish me luck!

    • I taught at a state university for a year in 2011, 3 sections a semester, made 9700 dollars. It worked out to less than 1/3 minimum wage.

  7. Been there … I’m a high school teacher, but I took an adjunct assignment at a local community college a few years back … I have an MA in journalism from Missouri, and I was teaching a general mass media and society course. It was extra money for me, and my high school gig includes benefits, so I was less bothered by the low payrate than I would have been otherwise. I knew several “freeway flyer” adjuncts who cobbled together gigs in multiple community college districts because they were limited to a certain number of courses in a particular district in the same semester. … When cuts were imminent, even though I really enjoyed the gig, I volunteered — I felt like it wouldn’t have been fair to keep me on when it was a side gig for me, but others were trying to make a living at it. …

  8. This is nothing new. Teachers in general make less than Mickey D workers. Always have, always will. Yes, they talk a good fight but do not back up their words with pay. They say they want quality education as long as it doesn’t cost much.

  9. Taught for 8 years after getting my doctorate an adjunct at Belmont and Vanderbilt in Nashville. Had to teach at two univeristies to support my family. Finally quit both, and making more $. I had told my students for years that I could make more money as a barista at Starbucks AND have health insurance!!

  10. My wife is a nurse and only makes $15 an hour after working for 33 years in the health industry. Its not just teachers…. Plus, for $15 an hour, you get to make life and death decisions … make a mistake and you are out. I think it is an insult to those who have worked hard, gone to school to improve themselves to have the same pay as fast food employees.

    • At my university, if we were limited to only 3 classes a semester, the total gross before taxes would only be $24000 and I make more than that at my university job which is an office associate and only requires a high school diploma. I am a grad student and have often “joked” that I will be a “secretary” with a PhD because I would have to take a pay cut to teach.

  11. I taught as an Adjunct Professor for 15 years, here in the U.S. and abroad. This article is so true, I never had an office, I had to prep at home and I did not get any extra funds for my time. When I was hired I was hired days before a class would start and would have to play catch up. I could and was fired without cause or reason and could not appeal or fight the firing.

  12. Definitely true. I want to teach as my post career job. But 3 master’s degrees (1 from Harvard and 1 from Stanford) do not get me into the faculty union. Just don’t have the faculty box tops–and no PhD, even though I have been CEO of, let’s see now, 6 companies plus have Master’s from real universities, is not as worthy as a 25 year old PhD from a second or third rate university or a JD (since they renamed their LLB so they are now Doctors). So, I get to teach–but at about $8/hour. The pay is crap, the disrespect is garbage, but the chance to influence students is sublime.

  13. Hello! I work in an institution of higher education and schedule just over 100 adjunct faculty into about 140 classes per semester, so I fully appreciate all of the sentiments in this article. However, I would like to point out one thing. By definition, adjunct faculty are supplementary/auxiliary faculty members that are used on an as-needed basis.

    All of the adjunct faculty that I schedule are aware of this. They are understanding when courses are cancelled because of low enrollment or when I ask them to teach a class last minute when another instructor backs out. Maybe I have been blessed with the best 100 adjunct faculty members ever! 🙂

    However, it is my belief that if when an individual that desires to teach at the college level cannot attain a full-time professorship at a college – they should seek full-time employment elsewhere and use the position of an adjunct faculty as a *supplement* to their own experiences. Hopefully this will lead to a professorship in the future without jeopardizing their current standard of living in the interim.

    • I also meant to mention that I fully agree that there are institutions out there that abuse their adjunct faculty! I have seen and heard of it from adjuncts that leave other places and come to us. Not a good situation for anyone involved, especially the students.

      • Wowee. It is scary when the administrator doesn’t even know how the adjunct faculty are supposed to be used (and why). Yes, adjunct faculty are hired “as-needed.” But the way the system is supposed to work (and how it was designed has historically worked, and worked well) is that tenured faculty positions are designed to be able to “cover” average enrollment numbers. In other words, the tenure track professors are all available to teach all the available classes during a normal enrollment period. THEN, you hire adjuncts to fill in for the overages. I am sure you are a sweet person. But get a clue–if the adjuncts you employ are eating from the trash (some of them might ACTUALLY be doing it), don’t act like it makes it better by serving the trash on a silver platter. It’s up to people like you to force the change. So please don’t act like it is the “system” that is at fault.

        • Oh, your reply to the administrator hit the nail on the head. She needs to get a clue that ALL adjunct faculty are the slaves of higher ed. Just for kicks she should compare those 140 adjunct positions to the number of full-time (not just tenure track) positions in her world. I will almost guarantee a 2/1 ratio! Adjuncts make up the lion’s share of teaching post secondary. It should be clear by now that none of us do it for the money!!

    • They obviously need the work despite low pay and no benefits. It does not make it right. I know an adjunct and her pay does not even cover her day care expenses.

    • Sure, I can devote 70 hours or more a week to your “part-time” labor while working to support myself somewhere else. How about paying for labor like any other commodity, or maybe like they do YOURS?

  14. Article and comments are so true. When I used to teach as an adjunct, often at three different sites, I might teach six hours per day starting at 8 AM and finishing at 10:30 PM. I taught sciences, and labs were two to four hours long (depending on the site) and would be only 1 to 2 credits. One school expected us to set up for each lab, do inventory and order supplies for no compensation. Also, because some classes wouldn’t run due to low enrollment, I’d often have to sign up for 20+ credits to get 9 to 12 credits to teach. And, when all of the classes DID fill and run, it was a nightmare.

  15. I am currently working as an adjunct professor in two community colleges in two different states. My class load will be reduced at one of the colleges next semester because the administration has decided that adjuncts are only allowed to teach 9 credits a semester instead of 12, which means that we can AT BEST teach three 3-credit classes (and by the time the list of available classes was offered to me, all the 3-credit classes were taken, so I’m left teaching two 4-credit classes). Because of decreased enrollment in the winter/spring semester, I wasn’t offered a gig with the other school at all. The only reason I’m able to do this in the first place is because my husband is employed as an engineer; if not for that, I’d probably be waiting tables.

    None of this takes into account that I’m almost criminally underutilized in these positions. The limited class time, the lack of resources, and the culture of the schools means that I don’t get to engage students in meaningful ways. They go through the motions, they get the grade (or not, which is often the case), and they move on. The toll this kind of work takes on teachers who actually care about the work they do can’t be calculated; I’m betting we’ve lost a lot of really excellent teachers because they’re just too demoralized to continue to work this way.

    • I’ve seen that before where the school states that they want an educator for the class, but then doesn’t provide the tools necessary or even the room/time needed to handle the student load. At the same time, the schools are seeing the students as a customer and not a person to be educated. This brings down the quality–at times–to a fast food mentality. Get in–service as Many people as you can–and then push them out as Quickly as you can. All the while charging prices that are not remotely in the realm of services due.

      One thing that I will say about working for more than one college is the scary time of “the schedule you have now is okay with each college, but college B wants to lock in a schedule time for you early and college A’s schedule now overlaps for 2-3 weeks”. Logistically, it becomes hard to find enough part time work to fill in a lack of a full time job. Note, I’m not stating that a full timer has it better in some of the newer places.

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