New Report Focuses on the Plight of Adjunct Professors

By:  Euphemia Thomopulos
Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP
San Francisco, CA

A new report released by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Democratic Staff, “The Just In-Time Professor” highlights a problem that many in the academic community are all too familiar with – poor working conditions for adjunct professors.  The report notes that adjunct professors now represent half of all higher education faculty.  Despite their prevalence at colleges and universities, adjunct professors face a number of problems.  The report notes that adjuncts are usually paid a piece rate, regardless of how much time it takes them to prepare for their courses.  As a result, out of the one hundred and fifty-two adjuncts that provided their estimated annual teaching salary to assist with the report, the median income was $22,041, below the poverty line for a family of four.  The report notes that many adjuncts are forced to rely on public assistance programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.

In addition to low wages, adjunct professors are often denied access to benefits, with some institutions going so far as to cap adjuncts’ teaching loads to avoid having them qualify for benefits.  One adjunct told the authors of the report, “[b]enefits are really out of reach at my pay scale.  The health care plan that I could buy into costs more than my take-home pay even on a good year (and far more than I earn on a bad year). I don’t earn enough to save for retirement (every month is a struggle just to pay the basic bills). My ‘retirement’ plan is to work until they bury me.”

In addition to low pay and no benefits, the report highlights the link between student outcomes and the poor treatment of adjuncts, noting that lack of preparation time or even a place to hold office hours makes it difficult for adjunct professors to best serve their students.

There is some hope, however.  “The Just-In-Time Professor” report marks the first time Congress has formally recognized the challenges many adjunct professors face.  Representative George Miller, a senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education, states that he intends, along with other Democrats and his staff, to work with institutions to find ways to improve adjuncts’ working conditions in the future.

One way institutions can assist adjuncts is to be cognizant of their needs.  Appoint someone in your administration to work specifically with adjuncts to address their concerns.  If possible, provide adjuncts with office space and preparatory time in order to assist them in managing their schedules.  If an adjunct is working at multiple institutions, talk to them about their schedule and ways the institution can accommodate them.  Recognize that your adjuncts may be working full-time for lower pay and try to accommodation their requests if at all possible.

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