How College Professors Are Fighting for Their Lives

Amy Roh/The Hastings Tribune via AP

A PhD might help land someone a teaching job, but it does not afford them a livable wage. Rather than a respectable salary, professors at many universities and private colleges earn a small hourly wage, often less than the legal minimum wage. They have no health insurance, have to float classroom to classroom, receiving their semester schedules right before the term starts, and teach at multiple schools, often racing between campuses, to cobble together an income. Others sleep in their classrooms or cars, unable to afford rent on their adjunct wage. For Splinter, Hamilton Nolan spends time at Miami Dade College, one of the largest colleges in the US, to see how their dedicated adjunct educators have unionized, and whether their efforts can earn them and adjuncts around the country any financial and emotional stability.

…The long term trend in higher education has been one of a shrinking number of full-time positions and an ever-growing number of adjunct positions. It is not hard to see why. University budgets are balanced on the backs of adjunct professors. In an adjunct, a school gets the same class taught for about half the salary of a full-time professor, and none of the benefits. The school also retains a god-like control over the schedules of adjuncts, who are literally laid off after every single semester, and then rehired as necessary for the following semester. In the decade since the financial crisis, state governments have slashed higher education funding, and Florida is no exception. That has had two primary consequences on campus: students have taken on ever-higher levels of debt to pay for school, and the college teaching profession has been gutted, as expensive full-time positions are steadily eliminated in favor of cheaper adjunct positions. Many longtime adjuncts talk of jealously waiting for years for a full-time professor to die or retire, only to see the full-time position eliminated when they finally do.

So what do adjuncts’ daily lives look like?

“I would work morning, noon, and night. That is my problem—to be able to make a living, that’s what I had to do,” says Renee Zelden, who adjuncts at both Broward and Miami Dade Colleges. “I teach more than full-time faculty.” Indeed. This summer, Zelden is “only” teaching five classes at two schools—fewer than her usual six to eight classes at three schools per semester. Most schools cap adjuncts at four classes per semester, hence the multiple institutions. The gas money Zelden spends to commute from her home to Miami can eat up more than the $50 she is paid for a single hour of class, so she must be sure to get multiple classes on the same day just to make teaching worth her time. Fifty dollars for an hour-long class sounds decent, until you break down the time it takes to prep for class, commute, teach, and then grade papers for 25 or more students. “If I figured it out, I’d be afraid I’m only making like five dollars an hour,” says Zelden, “so I don’t want to figure it out.”

She needn’t be so negative. Other Florida adjuncts who have figured it out told me that, factoring in all of the time they spend on teaching and related work, they make as much as seven dollars an hour—less than Florida’s minimum wage.

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