Pratt Institue in Brooklyn, New York (photo by Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons)

“What if everyone just told their students how much they got paid?” pondered Erin Bartram, a former professor of 19th Century American history, in a Tweet August this year. The thought came to her after stumbling onto a Twitter thread in which contingent faculty members, otherwise known as adjuncts, relayed stories about the misconception held by their students, and the public at large, about their meager pay rates. Georgina Aadlam, a professor of English Literature at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan wrote she “howl[ed] with laughter” when a student thought she made $50,000 a year. Alison Furlong, a musicologist at the Ohio State University, wrote that some of her students thought she made $4,000 per class session instead of per course. In response, Bartram acted on her proposition and created a Google spreadsheet in which adjuncts are called to share their salaries and working conditions, much in the style of the “Art/Museum Salary Transparency” spreadsheet that circulated in summer. Originally titled “Adjuncts Rates,” the spreadsheet — now more elaborately titled “What do the people who teach college get paid?” — has since grown to include tenure-track professors and teaching graduate students as well.

“My hope was that if we got it filled in, it might be a way to reach the people who we really want to engage in this discussion — students and their parents,” Bartram wrote Hyperallergic in an email. “I think the use of adjunct labor, and what that means for faculty and student lives, is still not well-understood by the general public,” she continued. “Pay transparency is good for lots of reasons, including labor organizing, but I really hope that people outside of academia might see it too.” So far, close to 500 adjuncts have filled in the spreadsheet. Pay for a 3-credit course ranges from $1,400 (ECPI University in Virginia) to $16,000 (Princeton University in New Jersey). A great number of the adjuncts reported they don’t belong to a union.

Bartram herself is no longer an adjunct. After three years of teaching, first as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Hartford, a private university in Connecticut, and then as an adjunct at the University of Connecticut, she decided to abandon the profession altogether. “I decided to give up on trying for a tenure-track position, given the long odds, and financial challenges that make it hard to do academic research and publishing when you’re a contingent academic,” she wrote Hyperallergic. A personal essay about her departure from the world of academia was featured at the time on the Chronicle of High Education. Nowadays, Bartram is an editor for Contingent Magazine, an online magazine of history she co-founded with other colleagues. She also co-edits the Rethinking Careers, Rethinking Academia series for the University Press of Kansas in addition to working as the School Programs Coordinator at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Connecticut.

Past Campaigns

Bartram is not the first to circulate an adjunct salary spreadsheet to highlight the plight of contingent faculty members. In 2012, Joshua A. Boldt, then a writing instructor at the University of Georgia, circulated a similar document, later called the Adjunct Project, which quickly went viral. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, pay for a 3-credit course at the time started at $600. In April 2015, adjuncts from across the country waged a nationwide campaign demanding a minimum compensation of $15,000 per college course taught, in addition to benefits. That, of course, never happened. College tuition expenses have increased by a staggering 538% since 1985, but higher education institutions continue to increasingly transform tenure-track positions to adjunct labor to save money on salaries and benefits. According to data provided by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), 73% of all faculty positions in American colleges and universities are contingent staff who are kept off the tenure track, creating a two-tier system of compensation and benefits within these institutions. (The data is from 2016, the latest year for which it was available.) The association’s 2018-19 AAUP Faculty Compensation Survey, based on responses collected from more than 950 colleges and universities across the United States, found that the average pay for a part-time faculty member teaching a three-credit course was $3,894, although the pay rates spanned a huge range across different institutions. Salaries for full-time faculty members have increased 2% compared to last year but adjusted for 1.9%, they “barely budged,” AAUP says.

Just how low is a salary based on $3,894 per course? Typically, a full teaching load stands at three classes a semester. If an adjunct is paid $3,894 per course, their salary before taxes would be $23,364 per year if they teach a normal lecturer’s load (three in the fall semester; three in the spring semester). As a result, adjuncts may end teaching up to six courses per semester to make ends meet, often at several different schools at once, as universities tend to cap the number of courses that can be allotted to any given adjunct per semester.

Parsons The New School For Design in New York City (photo by Benoît Prieur via Wikimedia Commons)

High Prestige, Starvation Wages

Higher education institutions cloak their teachers and students in an aura of prestige, but an adjunct job could sink an academic with a PhD below the poverty line. According to a 2015 study from Service Employees International Union (SEIU), based on data compiled by the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education between 2008-2012, one in five part-time faculty members live below the federal poverty line. The report indicates that a vast number of the rest live near the poverty line. Some 25% are enrolled in one or more government assistance programs. Across the country, part-time faculty members are more likely to be in poverty than the average American, from 9% more likely in Nevada to 43% more likely in Maine.

“The situation is bleak across the country but seems to be just dire in New York City where so many people are competing for the same teaching positions,” said Alina Tenser, a New York-based artist and long-time adjunct, in an email conversation with Hyperallergic. “Artists gravitate towards these positions because of the perceived security they can provide,” she said. “However, given the staggering ratios of adjunct to full-time faculty in most New York institutions, the security of academic jobs is as out of reach as commercial success in the art world,” she added. Tenser currently teaches drawing and fashion illustration at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (her fourth year) and 3D design at Parsons School of Design in Lower Manhattan (starting this year). Pratt pays her $4,583 per course while Parsons pays her $11,506 per course, but she’s yet to earn benefits at either. This semester she’s teaching three courses that should yield her an income of about $30,000. But as a mother to a child in New York City, she still finds herself needing to look for other sources of income. “Because I do not get paid in the summertime, I often work other jobs,” she said. “I do a light load of bookkeeping for a small creative collective year around, as well as art installing gigs and seamstress work during the summer vacation months. This is on top of balancing an art practice.”

And then there’s the question of space. Adjuncts often have no office to use on campus, meaning they have nowhere to meet their students for office hours, and nowhere to leave heavy belongings like books and laptops while trekking across one or more campuses to teach. “My per-class pay [as a unionized adjunct at the public University of Connecticut] was about $1500 more than it had been in my last year at a private institution, but I showed up on the first day to discover the communal adjunct office had been repurposed and there was no place to hang up my coat, let alone meet privately with students.”

There were days when a job in academia meant a well-cushioned career for life, but things have changed. “Just because you teach in a university, it doesn’t mean that you have a tweed jacket, a mortgage, and a retirement fund,” said Dushko Petrovich, chair of the New Arts Journalism program at the School of the Art Institue Chicago, in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic. “That’s how it was in the 1970s maybe, but we’re a long way from that.”

In 2015, Petrovich launched Adjunct Commuter Weekly, a publication that addressed the lifestyle needs of adjuncts. At the time, Petrovich commuted from Brooklyn to teach at Yale, RISD, and Boston University. He did that for 10 years before landing a tenure-track position at the School of the Art Institue Chicago. “Adjuncting is sometimes good for people in a short term way,” he said. “The problem is that universities across the country have taken advantage of the situation to make positions that should be salary jobs with benefits, and be life-long professions, into gig economy bits and pieces.”

Unions are crucial in contingent workers’ ability to negotiate for living wages and benefits. But the possibility of unionization is challenged in more than one way. Sometimes it is restricted by state law and in other situations by the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB), which showed some leniency toward adjunct professors during the Obama administration but then turned a cold shoulder to them under President Donald Trump. In some cases, unions are impeded by the power of a 1980 Supreme Court decision (NLRB v. Yeshiva University) which ruled full-time professors as “managers” who are not entitled to collective bargaining rights.

“The collective bargaining power of a union can help secure not only higher pay, and benefits but the needed multi-year contract,” said Kealey Boyd, a Denver-based art historian, writer, critic, and a Hyperallergic contributor, in an email. In the past five years, Boyd has been teaching art history at the Metropolitan State University (MSU) of Denver, Colorado after teaching at several institutions simultaneously between 2011-2014. Adjuncts at MSU Denver are not unionized. After all these years at MSU Denver, she still does not receive benefits. “I pay into a pension that I doubt will exist when I reach retirement. My healthcare is through my spouse,” she said. Boyd makes $3,065 per course, never certain if she will be rehired, as adjuncts are hired on a semester by semester base.

“Moving from a semester to semester employment to even a one-year commitment can alter a teacher’s life,” Boyd added. “The ability to forecast employment more than 4 months can encourage a teacher to investigate and navigate their employment options better in their region,” she continued. “Unions won’t solve the broad over-reliance by universities on this flexible workforce, but greater pay and contract commitments would grant mobility and dignity to this skilled population.”

“Although adjuncts are well qualified and dedicated to teaching, there is only so much a person can be expected to do for a salary of under $20,000 per year,” Tenser said. “Since many adjuncts have to supplement their income with other gigs, they don’t have as much time to answer student emails, meet outside of class, etc. as full-time faculty. This is not good for students or teachers!”

“Adjuncts have to press for change in an organized fashion,” Petrovich concluded. “Tenure-track faculty need to support them when that happens, and administrations need to recognize that there is a big problem.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...

19 replies on “How Much Does an Adjunct Actually Make?”

  1. I lived the life of an adjunct for quite a few years,sometimes forgetting which school I was heading to on a given day. The salary/benefits issue is serious. Another equally important issue is the lack of respect that exists for adjunct instructors. I have heard students,parents and other faculty comment “She’s just an part-timer”, as though the adjunct status indicates a lack of expertise, drive or interest.
    I have been left out of faculty exhibits (what does that tell the students?),meetings and graduations. In many cases, I taught advanced students in 3-5 courses before graduation, formed important relationships with them, and was clearly not considered “real faculty” by the school. Some students have commented that adjuncts are “just part timers” and don’t understand the pressures on the students. A disheartening state of affairs all the way around.

  2. From a compensation standpoint, whatever the base: not bad for hourly work and provides maximum time flexibility for other endeavors. C’mon, people. Out of victim mode you go! Get creative. All artists teach to supplement their income. Welcome to life in the arts. It’s a deeper issue of exempt vs non-exempt wage status. Prove adjunct work is exempt level work and your base, hours and benefits all fall in place. This is simplified but do the research and follow-up. There used to be forms to file that are likely now on-line.

      1. I read the article and between the lines of the article. Perhaps you should learn about labor law and supply and demand! Dividing income by hours is not a bad perspective, it’s business (even in education). It’s the same as public school teachers and they have a union. People accept jobs and then want to complain about the infrastructure. There’s another way to think about things, that’s all I’m suggesting.

        1. You know literally nothing about this. Many adjuncts work in unionized schools and they still get wildly underpaid. It’s nothing like public school teachers, unless you think 70% of public school teachers are part time employees with no benefits.

    1. The “per hour” is not just showing up 2x week in a classroom setting. I work endless hours outside the classroom on lesson plans and postings required from most of those institutions on educational hubs. My coursework is not scripted and I take great pride teaching basic computers to 24 to 30 students per class. My attendance for my students every semester is amazing and at the end of each semester the heartfelt appreciation for what students get taught in my course is priceless!

    2. The “per hour” is not just in the classroom. I work endless hours outside the classroom hourly rate on lesson plans and postings required from those institutions on educational hubs. My coursework is not scripted and I take great pride as well as work hard to make sure my students are successful in higher education. It’s when you assume; try teaching basic computers to 30 students if all levels…

    3. The “per hour” is not just showing up 2x week in a classroom setting. I work endless hours outside the classroom on lesson plans and postings required from most of those institutions on educational hubs. My coursework is not scripted and I take great pride teaching basic computers to 24 to 30 students per class. My attendance for my students every semester is amazing and at the end of each semester the heartfelt appreciation for what students get taught in my course is priceless!

  3. More than 30 years ago adjunct lecturers at the City University of New York (CUNY) created the Part-Timers Union (PTU) and lobbied for a living wage and health benefits. The CUNY graduate school student newspaper regularly published editorials and articles about the plight of adjunct faculty. I do not know what became of the PTU and working conditions for CUNY adjuncts, but nationwide it seems nothing has changed.

  4. worked as an adjunct at multiple schools around Philadelphia from 2006 – 2016. At one school was hired as a “visiting professor” full time for 2 years (and paid fulltime/benefits, etc), when the position was offered for tenure track, was told I didnt have the right masters degree.
    Taught what was needed whereever – art history, graphic design, typography, art appreciation. – at last school (a Christian college that focuses on social justice) -I knew NO other faculty except the chairman of the dept. I did it because I liked it, and had other support – but it paid @ $6. per hour when I figured out all time involved -classroom, prep, grading, etc.

  5. Try a union. The Board of Governors system (now defunct, but the union systems remain at individual campuses) in Illinois bent to the union’s will in the mid 1980’s and agreed that adjuncts would now be called Annually Contracted Faculty with contract rights. What did that mean? A roster for ACF’s. Minimum salary lines with nine month contracts. Health benefits. Pension benefits. Course credit limits. Offices. An ACF could teach no more than 24 credit hours in a year. Read the contracts for any of these universities. Eastern Illinois University will work. These contracts were then inspiration for people to organize up at the U of Illinois Chicago campus in the last few years.The contract for all faculty inspired the U of I/Chicago to seek out the University Professionals of Illinois (UPI/IFT/AFT) for support. Unions work.

  6. I am an adjunct at SUNY Cobleskill….teaching art and graphic design for 10 years now. We are below the average in pay. BUT, we ARE unionized and to be honest here I have amazing benefits. (thru both the Union and the college itself) We are treated very well here, I am not feeling like a second class citizen. But if I look at the numbers here too long – – I could cry. BWAAAAAAA!

  7. One of the selling points of going to grad school in the arts was that it opened the path toward teaching college full-time, giving artists rare job security, a good salary, and benefits. The problem is, too many art majors had the same idea, and the supply of MFAs is much greater than the demand, and so the only jobs available in higher ed are adjuncts. Adjunct teaching was never designed to be a full-time job, but rather a chance for real-world professionals to lend their expertise to a college setting.
    At the community college where I usually adjunct, enrollment is always a concern. If we were given higher salaries, it would likely come out of the students’ tuition. This would result in lower enrollment, and ultimately adjuncts would teach less classes, as the priority goes to the full-timers.
    The real problem, as I see it, is the pressure for artists to pursue higher degrees, incurring a lot of debt along the way. While I benefitted from grad school, I’m not sure it outweighed the lifetime debt I am now shackled with.

  8. No mention of how this is caused by the invasion-levels of immigration? If you can’t acknowledge the cause there isn’t much chance of fixing things. Pay is low because there is a surplus. Why is there a surplus? Who is benefiting from that surplus? And who is advocating for that surplus. Look at corporations and universities pushing for more and more foreigners here. Causes low wages, unemployment, high tuition, high housing costs…basically everything people complain about yet they act like cutting off the cause of the problem isn’t allowed. No other country is selling out its own citizens this way.

    1. Wow, it’s so depressing that people can still be this uneducated and ignorant. How about punching up to exploitative administrators rather than imagining that there are invasion-levels of immigration? Stop watching Fox News.

    2. The only time this country had an invasion-level of immigration was when white dudes came in from Europe.

  9. Thanks for writing about this.
    Part-timers now teach the vast majority of all credit-bearing courses in higher education. The minority faculty of full-timers teaches a minority of all credit-bearing courses.
    For part-timers, understanding the full-timers’ point-of-view means understanding that the lesser faculty only gets paid for their teaching, while the greater faculty gets paid for teaching, service, and research. There’s a common rationalization that says there’s nothing wrong with paying adjuncts 33 cents or less on the dollar, precisely because adjuncts don’t get paid for service and research. Here in New York State, I’ve long wisecracked the defunding of public higher education was for the express purpose of reducing the dividend rates paid by Manhattan-resident David H. Koch.

  10. It is great that this article was published but some clarifications are needed. The average
    $3,894 per course likely includes courses at law and business schools that pay much more than an adjunct faculty member earns in other subjects. Even if not, some colleges who report full time pay do not report adjunct pay (likely because they do not want to show the pay gap) and that also alters the picture. The latest contract of UUP, the union representing faculty at State University of New York institutions (not including community colleges) calls for a minimum of $3000 per 3 credit course at most campuses and $3500 at the larger university centers. In the South, pay is far less as it is for community colleges in New York State.

    The PhD glut is not entirely responsible either. At community colleges and even many 4 year colleges and universities, adjunct faculty with master’s degrees teach many of the introductory and other lower level courses. At community colleges, many faculty who teach basic or remedial English and math courses are full time high school teachers who are picking up some extra pay and sometimes, pension benefits.

    This problem has been known for some time, and for at least 20 years, the major organizations/unions representing faculty (AFT, NEA and AAUP) have had statements supporting equity. The problem is they have done little or nothing to address it. They have their heads in the sand while the number of full time tenure track positions continue to be replaced by contingent positions. And now that on unionized public institution campuses, adjunct faculty cannot be compelled to pay union dues, they will likely be less interested until there are not enough full time faculty to support them.

  11. I make $2300 a course at 2 local community colleges and I’m lucky to get 4 classes. I lost $20,000 last year due to overcrowding 30 students and the dean of one of the department teaches 60 students a semester. I had my car repossessed 2x and cant afford health insurance. There are no jobs in education and the politicans keep hiring outsiders; I get great student reviews but that does not mean squat. I was denied summer unemployment for 3 months after starting a course they cancelled the following week. I do belong to a union at the 1 college but they do nothing except represent primary and secondary educators. Adjunct professors have NO promise of employment from semester to semester and unemployment feels if we have a contract after the Spring semester for the Fall Adjunct professors do not qualify, wtf! I want to be a blueberry farmer! Too broke to qualify for a McDonald’s burger and Thank my lucky stars I have a great man that supports me knowing I love teaching. I still have no clue what I am teaching next semester at the 1 college and generally find out the 1st week of January what’s what
    The other college canceled my course already and only assigned me 1 course to teach because the fulltime faculty grab 6 to 7 a semester. The life of a adjunct professor….

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