The Working Poor in Academia

My office mate’s eyes light up when he begins talking about a new approach he’s just tried with his college students that worked really well. He clearly loves what he does, and he’s endlessly curious about how he can do his job even better. 

Pay for part-time adjunct college teachers, however, is notoriously low. One day, my friend and I jokingly figured out we were making well below minimum wage for the hours we put into our teaching. I’m fortunate because I have a wonderful husband who supports my teaching, as well as my writing, habit.

But that’s not the case for my office mate. He wonders how much longer he can go on being this poor—on Medicaid, food stamps, and living with his parents. Not exactly the American Dream for a highly educated guy in his thirties.

And he’s hardly alone. The other day, we were at an adjunct conference luncheon. It was a pretty self-selected group, teachers willing to give up their Saturday for no pay or departmental credit to gain new ideas and insights for their work with students. Everyone at our table was enthusiastic about teaching, but they also fretted about the slave wages. One young instructor from a neighboring university said she was only able to afford to teach because she’d moved in with her brother who wasn’t charging her rent. Another admitted to having spent eight years teaching at several area colleges and universities simultaneously to make ends meet until he was so burned out and exhausted he couldn’t go on. Now he only teaches at two colleges, but his wife is pressuring him to get a fulltime job.

It was a sobering lunch. Colleges and universities increasingly rely on adjuncts to stay afloat. Anywhere from 60-80 percent of classes are typically taught by part-timers. Several of the adjuncts in my department teach three courses a semester, the equivalent of a fulltime teaching load at many universities. Granted, these folks don’t have to do committee work. But I suspect many of them would gladly add to their responsibilities in exchange for benefits and a living wage.

Meantime, the revolving door continues to swing loudly and often, as adjunct instructors leave who can’t afford to stay and are replaced by new folks who also have a passion for teaching.

I don’t know what the solution is. But I do know that we have a highly educated and sizable subset of the working poor within the walls of academia. As a group, I’ve found them devoted to their work. But they’re also adults who have to pay the bills.

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