Adjunct Labor

Adjuncts in Academia

Adjunct instructors are hired by colleges on a course by course basis as cheap, contingent labor.  Adjuncts typically have or are pursuing a PhD, are disproportionately female (Fredrickson), and live below the poverty line (Segran).  The number of adjuncts in the US has greatly increased over the last 30 years; it is estimated 75% of professors are adjunct (Curtis and Thornton).  At the City University of New York (CUNY), where I adjunct, they account for at least 62% of instructors (Swarns). 

Corporatization and Pay

Sometimes called the “Wal-martization of higher education” (Hoeller), colleges are run “as a business,” focusing on “amenities above academics” whereby students are “the customer” (Saccaro).  Adjuncts are then presumably freelancers.  Administrative positions and their relative cost have increased over the last four decades, while the ratio of faculty appointments to student enrollment has remained roughly the same (Scheinman).  In addition, “the ratio of tenure-track openings to new doctorates is around 1 to 4” (Brecher). 

Rising tuition costs and student debt is not reflected in adjunct pay.  Adjunct instructors teach college courses on a course by course appointment with little job security or advancement opportunities and are typically only compensated for ‘contact hours,’ or class room hours.  Calculations do not include time to create a framework, choose readings, design assignments and projects, write lesson plans, grade, answer emails and the administrative requirements of teaching.  Depending on funding, enrollment, and other administrative concerns, adjuncts can be picked up or dropped from courses last minute, meaning time spent preparing course material might go unpaid.  Most adjuncts make less than a living wage, with many qualifying for public assistance including food stamps and medicaid (Jacobs, Perry, and MacGillvary; Patton).  While it might be argued adjunct teaching offers PhD students classroom experience, they frequently have to teach more than one class or work outside of academia to make ends meet.  For adjuncts the cultural capital of teaching at a college or university does not translate into monetary capital. 

Though the primary purpose of colleges is to educate students, this is not reflected in funding (Fredrickson).   “In 2013, colleges and universities devoted less than a third of their revenue to instruction” (Fredrickson).  I calculated my income as a full time adjunct at CUNY against student tuition.  It is important to note that CUNY adjuncts are part of the Professional Staff Congress Union and union membership has a “positive impact” on wages (CAW).  If a student at CUNY is full time, meaning they take 15 credits / 5 classes per semester, the cost is $6330 per year or $3165 per semester.  When divided by five that means each student is paying $633 per class.  In my two classes of 36, students are paying a total of $22,788 to take my class.  I am paid more than many adjuncts because of length of employment step program, but including a paid office hour I earn $4025.50 per class before taxes, union dues, and insurance deductions.  Most adjuncts average between $1,000 to $5,000 per class (McCarthy) with a median of $2,700 (CAW), so I am on the higher end.  I teach two classes of 36 and one jumbo class of 175 where I am paid for two average classes.  The result is roughly 7 out of 36 students are paying my salary in the former, 14 out of 175 in the latter.  Once class time, preparation, meeting with students, administrative duties and grading is taken into account the total is roughly New York’s minimum wage.

These totals strongly contrast with the compensation of the presidents or ‘CEO’s of these schools, creating a strong hierarchy within the academy (Lee and Severns).  While almost all heads of universities clear more than six figures, the average part-time professor earns about $20,000 a year (McKenna).  Estimates put the increase in average salaries for CEOs at public institutions at 75 percent between 1978 and 2013 and at 170 percent at private institutions (Fredrickson).  CUNY chancellor James Milliken’s annual salary as of 2016 is $670,000, including $19,500 a month for his apartment as well as a car and driver (Solis).

Benefits and Resources

There is little job security in adjunct teaching.  Rehiring depends on departmental budgets, enrollment numbers, and not being lost in the shuffle of part time labor.  The precarious position of adjuncts means academic freedom is not a guarantee.  If not liked by the students, e.g. if seen as being a particularly tough grader (Schuman), or if ideas court controversy an adjunct can lose their position.

While CUNY’s adjuncts are a part of the Professional Staff Congress Union and are provided basic health and dental insurance coverage, many others are not unionized and do not receive benefits.  Some colleges are implementing limits on course load for adjuncts so they are not required to offer insurance (Dunn).  In some cases seeking employment outside of academia is driven by the need to obtain affordable coverage. 

Adjuncts are also not always informed of college policies and procedures.  Different schools and different departments have different requirements as to learning objectives, requirements for syllabus formatting and content, attendance verification, access to copies, grading scales, and so on (Sabga).  They might also not be aware of student resources, e.g. writing centers and disability services.  Because of scheduling and commuting they are less likely to interact with full time faculty, attend department meetings (to which they are not always invited), or participate in departmental presentations and discussions.   

Some adjuncts are paid for an office hour, while others are not.  Office space, storage, and technology are not always provided (Edmonds), with some adjuncts meeting with students in coffee shops or at their cars.  When office space is available it is rarely private (Saccaro).  In my current teaching positions, one college provides a private office shared by a number of instructors and the other has adjuncts meet with students in a large central area in the department.  Meeting with students in a shared space means that we are interrupted with passers by for directions and contending with casual conversations of other faculty and staff.  Giving a make up exam or discussing sensitive information is extremely difficult. 

Even if space is provided, adjuncts have limited time for students because they are often traveling from campus to campus, job to job to patch together a living wage (Nolan; Brecher; Segran).  Commutes are often long and make it difficult to make time for students or to truly take part in campus life.  My commute to two colleges adds up to roughly 4 1/2 to 5 hours each day. 


The large quantity of adjunct instructors deprives students of their optimum education.  If an instructor can be hired or fired on a semester by semester basis, this places emphasis on being a popular teacher, not necessarily a good one.  In addition, it is difficult for an adjunct to write recommendation letters because they are not necessarily around for more than one or two semesters and they teach particular courses so students can rarely take the instructor again for a different class.  Some adjuncts are also reticent because their name will not carry as much weight as full time faculty. The University of Southern California’s Delphi Project, which looks at the changing faculty patterns in higher education, found students who take more classes with adjuncts have lower graduation rates (Segran; Sabga).  That is not to say adjuncts are not good teachers, but  that they simply cannot devote as much energy and time to their students as they would like” (Anderson).

Increasing reliance on adjunct labor is to the great detriment of colleges themselves.  There are fewer tenure track and well paid full time positions and many great educators are unwilling to stay for little pay and stability.  It limits the time adjuncts can dedicate to their own studies and research, thereby harming overall academic productivity and potential contribution to various fields.  The use of contingent labor also puts full time faculty and their unions at risk, lessening their bargaining power (Brecher).  If universities are run like corporations there is no incentive to produce good teachers and scholarship, but profitable teachers and scholarship.  The “Wal-martization” runs contrary to much of the critical content taught in these classes.  As stated rather ironically, colleges are “basically a bunch of postmodernists and Marxists running a Dickensian workhouse” (Nolan).

For more information and data:


Allen.  “The highly educated, badly paid, often abused adjunct professors.”  The Los Angeles Times.

Anderson.  “Death of a Professor”.  Slate.

Bettinger and Long.  “Does Cheaper Mean Better? The Impact of Using Adjunct Instructors on Student Outcomes”.  The Review of Economics and Statistics, August 2010, 92(3): 000–000

Bianco.  “As a CUNY adjunct I’ll make less over my career than my coworker Paul Krugman does in a year”.  Quartz.

Brecher.  “Class divide on campus: Adjunct professors fight for better pay, benefits”.  NBC News.

CAW.  “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members”.  Coalition on the Academic Workforce.

Cholo.  “Are Adjunct Professors the New Fast-Food Workers?” Pacific Standard.

Curtis and Thornton.  “Here’s the News”.  American Association of University Professors.

Dunn.  “Colleges Are Slashing Adjuncts’ Hours to Skirt New Rules on Health-Insurance Eligibility”.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Edmonds.  “More Than Half of College Faculty Are Adjuncts: Should You Care?”.  Forbes.

Fredrickson.  “There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts”.  The Atlantic.

Guerra.  “The Average Adjunct Pay at Community Colleges”.  Chron.

Hall.  “I am an adjunct professor who teaches five classes. I earn less than a pet-sitter”.  The Guardian.

Hoeller.  “The Wal-Mart-ization of higher education: How young professors are getting screwed”.  Salon.

June and Newman.  “Adjunct Project Reveals Wide Range in Pay”.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Jacobs, Perry, MacGillvary.  “The High Public Cost of Low Wages”.  UC Berkeley Labor.

Kilgannon.  “Without Tenure or a Home”.  The New York Times.

Lee and Severns.  “Charts: When College Presidents Are Paid Like CEOs”.  Mother Jones.

Machado.  “O Adjunct! My Adjunct!”.  The New Yorker.

McCarthy.  “Adjunct professors fight for crumbs on campus”.  The Washington Post.

Mckenna.  “The College President-to-Adjunct Pay Ratio”.  The Atlantic.

Nolan.  “Your Broke Adjunct Professors Would Like a Little Solidarity, Please”.  Gawker.

Nolan.  “True Stories From the Educated Underclass”.  Gawker.

Patton.  “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps”.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Riederer.  “The Teaching Class”.  Guernica.

Sabga.  “Adjunct professors in dire straits with low pay, lack of full-time jobs”.  Al Jazeera America.

Saccaro.  “Professors on food stamps: The shocking true story of academia in 2014”.  Salon.

Sanchez.  “Part-Time Professors Demand Higher Pay; Will Colleges Listen?”.  NPR.

Scheinman.  “How Colleges Misspend Your Tuition Money”.  Pacific Standard.

Schuman.  “Confessions of a Grade Inflator”.  Slate.

Segran.  “The Adjunct Revolt: How Poor Professors Are Fighting Back”.  The Atlantic.

Solis.  “No Funds for CUNY Art Students, Plenty for Swanky UES Apartment”.  The Observer.

Swarns.  “Crowded Out of Ivory Tower, Adjuncts See a Life Less Lofty”.  The New York Times.

Vincent and Klein.  “New CUNY chancellor gets one year’s salary if he bails in five years”.  New York Post.