Underpaid and Restless: Study Presents a 'Dismal Picture' of Life as a Part-Time Professor

June 20, 2012

Part-time faculty members work for low pay and scant benefits relative to their level of education and training, according to a long-awaited study, released today, of this fast-growing sector of the academic work force.

The median pay, $2,700 per course, and limited access to health insurance "stand in stark contradiction to higher education's claims about the value—including the economic value"—of higher education, write the authors of "A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members." The study was conducted by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, a group of 26 higher-education associations, disciplinary societies, and faculty organizations.

The researchers based their findings on the responses of nearly 20,000 contingent, or non-tenure-track, faculty members, of whom about 10,000 worked part time. They answered a 160-question survey made available online from late September 2010 until late November of the same year. The contingent academic work force represents approximately 70 percent of the faculty.

The findings do not purport to be statistically representative, though they encompass a range of disciplines, geographic areas in the United States, and types of institutions, including two- and four-year, and for-profit and nonprofit colleges. Despite their limitations, the data offer important insights, the authors write, into the working lives of part-time and contingent faculty.

These insights are likely to be cited as support for a growing litany of grievances on the status of contingent faculty. They coincide with emerging data from other sources, while also adding substance to accusations that the edifice of higher education is increasingly being maintained on the backs of an academic underclass.

Nearly three-quarters of the respondents described their part-time teaching positions as their primary occupation, and the income from them as essential or very important. Two-thirds of the part-time respondents, however, earned an annual income of less than $45,000. More than half made less than $35,000.

The differences in pay per course correlated most strongly to the type of institution. Private, nonprofit doctoral institutions paid a median of $3,800; for-profits paid $1,560.

While nearly 62 percent of the respondents who worked part time were women, the researchers did not find evidence that gender was a determining factor in pay. Women earned a median of $2,700 per course, while men reported being paid slightly more, $2,780.

The vast majority of part-timers, about 70 percent, were in their prime working years, 36 to 65. The majority taught two classes or fewer at the time the survey was taken. And, in contrast to the stereotype of the "freeway flyer"—a faculty member cobbling together a portfolio of courses at multiple campuses—more than three-quarters of the respondents taught at just one campus during the period studied.

The level of degree held by a faculty member also accounted for differences in pay. A faculty member with a master's degree earned a median of $2,400 per course, while those with a doctorate made $3,200. Length of service, however, helped very little. A part-time faculty member teaching his or her first class earned a median of $2,700 per course. Those who have taught more than 30 terms made $3,000.

"In short," the authors write, "little economic benefit accrues with part-time faculty members' experience in the classroom."

Benefits and Support

The coalition's study also examined other areas of working life that have long frustrated adjuncts and their advocates.

Less than one part-time faculty member in four reported receiving health benefits through his or her academic institution.

Opportunities to save for retirement were more plentiful. More than 40 percent of respondents who worked part time said they had access to retirement benefits through their academic employer, with both the faculty member and employer sharing responsibility to pay such benefits.

Those who worked at campuses that were represented by unions generally enjoyed better pay, benefits, and working conditions, the authors write.

The institutions' support for part-time faculty's ability to do their jobs presented another area of frustration. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents reported that they were not paid for work outside the classroom, such as meeting with students. While nearly 29 percent of respondents were supported in taking teacher-development workshops, less than one adjunct in 10 had access to private office space to meet with students, a shortfall that has lately concerned many experts who see a direct link between the working conditions of faculty members and the educational outcomes of students.

"The respondents paint a dismal picture, one that clearly demonstrates how little professional commitment and support part-time faculty members receive from their institutions for anything that costs money and is not related to preparing and delivering discrete course materials," the authors write.

The survey results paint an equally dire picture of part-time faculty members' restlessness. About 76 percent of those surveyed said they were either seeking, had recently sought, or intended to seek a full-time, tenure-track position.

The report from the coalition joins other recent efforts to gather data on this sector of the professoriate. Joshua A. Boldt, an adjunct instructor of English in Georgia, has crowdsourced data from his fellow adjuncts on their wages and working conditions. The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles also recently expanded its efforts to collect data from part-timers as part of its existing faculty survey.

Much of the data collected by the coalition agrees with other findings, said Linda T. DeAngelo, assistant director for research at the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, which conducts the work at UCLA. But there was one notable difference. Just 47 percent of the 6,700 part-time faculty members responding to UCLA's survey said they had sought or were currently seeking a full-time teaching position. The difference between the two studies, Ms. DeAngelo said, may have been because UCLA's sampled faculty only from four-year institutions.

Advocates for adjuncts hope that these recent sources of data may help to bridge gaps in knowledge left when the federal government stopped conducting the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty in 2004.

What is emerging, however, is not pretty, according to the authors of the coalition's report. "The levels of compensation and support reflect short-sighted employment practices in a labor market where colleges and universities are able to find qualified professionals and pay them significantly lower wages than their credentials and training warrant."