Adjunct faculty face low pay, minimal administrative support, AFT finds


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Dive Brief:

  • More than a quarter of adjunct faculty report annual earnings under $26,500, which is below the federal poverty line for a family of four. 
  • That’s according to survey data released October by American Federation of Teachers, a major union which represents 300,000 higher education workers. Many contingent faculty also lack access to employer benefits and have little, if any, job security, the survey found.
  • For most, employment is only guaranteed for a term or semester at a time, the survey found. Among respondents who had been terminated for nonperformance reasons, almost 41% received less than a week’s notice.

Dive Insight:

Colleges are increasingly relying on adjunct faculty as a less expensive alternative to tenured and tenure-track educators, AFT said. This comes amid government disinvestment in higher education and an expansion of highly paid administrator positions, according to the union.

AFT uses the phrase “contingent faculty” to encompass a wide variety of full- and part-time nontenure-track educators, including faculty, graduate employees and lecturers. 

“What they all have in common is that their jobs are not guaranteed,” the union said. “Their jobs are precarious and ‘contingent’ on factors they do not control.”

In fall 2021, 68% of U.S. faculty were in contingent positions, compared to 47% in 1987, according to a recent analysis from the American Association of University Professors.  Meanwhile, 48% had jobs that were part-time in fall 2021, up from 33% in 1987. 

“Adjunct faculty teach the classes and do the research that makes universities run, but they are too often treated as second-class citizens,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “Wages and conditions are so low that adjuncts are forced to cobble together three or four classes just to stay afloat — it’s untenable and unacceptable.”

Much of colleges’ undergraduate-level instruction is being taught by contingent faculty, the union said. Within its higher ed division, 85,000 are contingent employees and 35,000 are graduate employees, which AFT says makes it the biggest union of contingent academic workers.

For its latest report, AFT surveyed just over 1,000 contingent union and nonunion faculty members between May 4, 2022, and June 23, 2022. A majority, around 82%, worked on a part-time basis. Some 68% said they taught at a community college, and about 37% taught at a public four-year college.

AFT noted respondents could select multiple responses about their institution type, as it’s common for adjuncts to teach at more than one college.

The survey is the third in a series focused on adjunct and temporary faculty. AFT said the most recent results mirror those found in 2020 and 2019.

The cost of healthcare and a lack of benefits remains a top concern for adjunct faculty, the union said. Less than half of respondents, 45%, get health insurance through their employer. And 19% rely on Medicare or Medicaid for coverage.

“Some contingent faculty who work full time can be ineligible for health insurance because they teach classes on multiple campuses, failing to qualify for benefits from any particular employer,” AFT said. “Other contingent faculty miss out on health insurance because of Affordable Care Act rules that dramatically underestimate the amount of labor it takes to teach a class.”

Because of the cost of healthcare, more than 2 in 3 faculty members have put off dental care, and just over 1 in 5 skipped having a prescription filled, the survey found.

Only about 46% of survey respondents said their college’s leadership guarantees their academic freedom in the classroom. This comes as conservative legislators are working to remove control of curriculum from educators, AFT said.

“This is my dream job, but it’s become too hard and unstable,” said one survey respondent. “I don’t know when I will have to leave, but I wonder if it will give me more peace of mind to work somewhere that doesn’t have the looming threat of unemployment.”


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