The practice of working as an adjunct instructor at a college or university is known in the business as "junking." These part-time workers may make up as much as 70 percent of a school's faculty and are expected to perform the same classroom duties as full-time professors, but for much, much less pay. Employees of 7-Eleven and Kinko's make more per hour.
A typical tenured professor earns over $80,000 every nine months in pay and benefits. This comes out to $12,000 or so a course. An adjunct may earn as little as $1,500 to teach the same course and is offered no benefits at all. It's no wonder that Richmond colleges and universities employ several hundred part-time faculty to teach courses such as freshman composition, mathematics, introduction to computers, and U.S. history, which supposedly provide the critical foundation for a college education.
If we take $1,500 a course and divide by the number of hours the adjunct spends in the classroom, we get about $31 an hour. On the face of it, that doesn't look like bad money. But don't forget, this instructor has not yet read the textbook, designed tests or research assignments, graded exams, or even spoken to a student in the halls.
If we assume teachers work outside of class as much as they expect their students to (three to four hours for every hour of class time), adjunct wages slip to $8-10 an hour. So your college teacher with a master's or doctorate earns about the same as a deli worker at Hannaford, except that Hannaford provides benefits.
Moreover, the 3-to-1 ratio for instructor prep time greatly underestimates the time most instructors dedicate to their courses, especially in labor-intensive disciplines such as writing instruction. One adjunct kept a log of his hours and calculated his hourly wage at $6.75. Another woman estimates that she makes about $5 an hour, roughly equivalent to someone who dons the red cashier's smock at CVS.
But perhaps we can say, "Hey, if adjuncts are willing to work for McWages, let them." It would seem this is the attitude of the school presidents and their governing bodies who set adjunct pay rates and deny them benefits. The system is showing signs of wear, however. In our flush economy it is harder to find people willing to "junk." Five days before the start of classes, an e-mail sent to potential teachers was titled "Desperate for Adjuncts." Some schools have even hired instructors with no previous teaching experience and absolutely no training in how to teach.
So let's say your neighbor enrolls in a course taught by Professor Black, a faculty member the institution values enough to pay $80,000 for nine months work. You, on the other hand, get stuck with Adjunct Pink, who earns about as much as a high school student working part-time at your favorite fast-food store.. Have you received the same value for your tuition and fees as your neighbor?
There's evidence to suggest that Professor Black and Adjunct Pink cannot provide the same quality of education. Professor Black has her own office, with a computer, a phone, and secretarial support. Adjunct Pink, by contrast, spends most of his time driving back and forth across the river to teach, sometimes literally running from one class to the next, with no office, no school- provided phone to receive students calls, and no time to answer questions or address concerns after class.
One history adjunct, for example, teaches eight courses at three different colleges, while the typical teaching load for a VCU professor is three classes. The result is that a student enrolled in full-time Professor Black's U.S. history course may respond to weekly quizzes, take four tests which contain short-answer and essay questions, and submit three writing assignments. The student in Adjunct Pink's class will probably take a multiple-choice midterm and a final that are graded by scantron.
While Adjunct Pink's class may sound easier, it may also be less valuable to the student. Educational experts agree that the frequent tests and writing assignments of Professor Black's course provide students with better learning and fairer evaluation than the two bubble tests of Adjunct Pink.
"Junking" is a problem in schools all across the country. However, because of visionary legislators and administrators or unionized faculty, some states have developed mentoring programs, offered group health benefits, allowed for more office support, and included adjuncts in the decision-making processes of institutions so as to improve the consistency of instruction in all classes. These states have faced the issue because they know that their schools need adjuncts the way addicts need crack.
In the anti-union climate of Virginia, I doubt we will see mass action by adjuncts to improve their lot, nor has the State Council, the VCCS, or the General Assembly displayed much visionary leadership.
But remember that one of America's most famous maxims says, "You get what you pay for." So if you plan to take some college credits, which class do you want to enroll in: the one taught by $80,000 Professor Black (you know, the teacher with an office) or the one taught by $6.75 an hour Adjunct Pink?
Patrick Tompkins teaches full-time at John Tyler Community College.
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