It is a sad contradiction that America's universities and colleges have always introduced students to the most enlightened theories of economic justice in the classroom, but staff a majority of its faculties with vastly underpaid and undervalued adjunct professors. For those unfamiliar with this stripe of professor, adjuncts are hired on a part-time semester-to-semester basis and are only paid a fraction of what a full-time tenure-track professor would receive to teach the same courses. Adjuncts are so poorly compensated for their work that Gary Rhoades, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, argued in an Op-Ed that adjuncts should be seen as "part of a growing army of working poor" in the United States.
Rhoades and other critics are right to take academia to task for its exploitation of adjunct professors. However, what needs to come more into focus within the scope of this issue is that the mistreatment of adjuncts is not only an ethical and economic problem, but an educational one as well. Adjuncts face the same challenges as other low-income workers. They are ultimately forced to work long and inflexible hours to make ends meet while receiving little to no benefits or job security. Saddling adjuncts with these stark economic challenges hinders their performance and ultimately undermines the overall educational experience for students.
To begin, poorly compensating adjuncts weakens their ability to manage classes. Adjuncts have little time to concentrate on their work. According to a report from Adjunct Action, adjunct professors make on average only $3,000 per three-credit course and are limited in the number of classes they can instruct at a single university or college. Since this does not equal a livable wage, many adjunct professors are forced to teach at multiple institutions or take on other part-time work to make ends meet. The result is adjuncts are left to juggle hectic daily schedules that divide their focus between different jobs. This is problematic since planning and managing a single class requires the dedication of many hours. Professors must perform research on their subjects, compose lesson plans, and respond to student emails. They must also allot sizeable portions of time to assessing and commenting on student papers and exams. Many adjunct professors are too thinly spread throughout the day to administer to these tasks, which are so critical to the proper function of a class.
Another concern for time-strapped adjuncts is the limited amount of attention they can afford directly to their students. Many adjuncts become so pressed for time that they are forced to abandon providing extra help and advisement to students outside of the classroom. The Center for Community College Student Engagement printed a study for a recent special report that found a mere 7% of surveyed part-time faculty members considered student advisement part of their primary role as a teacher. This number is compared to 55% of full-time faculty respondents who saw advisement within the scope of their primary role. This notable difference is largely attributable to the fact that full-timers are paid a livable salary. They can stay on campus and hold regular office hours while the typical adjunct must hustle off to the next job or college once class lets out for the day. The consequence is that students are robbed of the one-on-one interaction with their instructors that could have provided some of the most rewarding and meaningful advice of their time in college.
Not only can drastically underpaying adjuncts hamper their interactions with students, but doing so also discourages the most experienced ones from continuing their careers in academia. Available full-time tenure-track positions are increasingly becoming a scarcity in today's academic institutions. According to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, full-time tenure-track professors dropped over a 40-year period from accounting for 78.3% of college faculty positions in 1969 to just 33.5% in 2009. With so few of these coveted well-paying positions available, many adjuncts find their careers stalled in a poorly paid dead-end situation with little chance of serious advancement into the higher ranks of academia. By offering weak opportunity for career growth, universities and colleges run the risk of losing its most capable and experienced adjuncts, who must look for better paying positions in other job sectors. Losing this talent has wide-scale implications considering that part-time professors make up over half of the nation's entire higher education faculty, according to numbers published by the American Association of University Professors. Letting teaching experience walk out the door due to lack of proper incentives hurts students since many of the most effective professors across the country simply cannot continue in their role.
It is time for universities and colleges to bestow the proper respect upon the very people who are on the frontlines of education. Shortchanging adjuncts is not only a disgraceful practice, but it also proves to be detrimental to the students who these institutions of higher learning endeavor to serve. Adjuncts should be paid a fair salary while given job security and a chance to foster a career within the confines academia. Taking these measures is in the best interest of universities and colleges since they are ultimately an investment toward student success. Freeing adjuncts from their economic constraints will result in a better-managed and more interactive experience in and out of the classroom. Taking a common sense step like this would be a strong move toward addressing the dysfunction of today's higher education system.