From by Celine James:

It’s a good thing that few entering academia expect to earn huge salaries and become incredibly wealthy because professorial jobs don’t usually come with rock star pay and benefits. Yet most newly graduated academics, after often spending nearly a decade in college, have the much more reasonable expectation of being able to earn a salary commensurate with their expertise or at least one that allows them to afford basic expenses like housing, food, and healthcare. Unfortunately, it’s increasingly common for even this very basic expectation not to be met.

Today, the majority of Ph.D. grads will find themselves working as adjunct faculty, not full-time professors. The shift towards adjuncts, who now make up almost 75% of instructional faculty, is perhaps one of the largest and most significant in the history of higher education, but so far, it doesn’t necessarily seem to be a change born out of a desire to improve education, but rather than to cut costs, as adjuncts are very often not particularly well-paid nor well-treated. How bad is it? Most adjuncts earn just $25,000 a year, less than half the average of $56,288 a new, full-time assistant professor will bring in according to the The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

Yet in a trend reflective of our larger economic shifts, many are more than willing to take on these low-pay, low-prestige positions to be able to pursue a career that they love in a subject they’re passionate about teaching. And while this is certainly an opportunity, it’s clear that those who are benefiting most aren’t adjuncts at all (nor the students they teach, in truth), but universities who have replaced more expensive full-time faculty with those who can be paid less, treated poorly, and quickly fired if necessary. While it’s yet to be seen if this trend has long-term staying power, what is clear is that colleges can no longer ignore the human impact of cutting back on tenured, full-time faculty.

The Changing Face of Higher Education

In 1969, 78% of faculty at America’s colleges and universities were tenure-track professors, with the rest having adjunct or part-time status, according to data from the Pullias Center for Higher Education. Today, those numbers are flipped, with adjuncts making up nearly three-quarters of instructional staff and tenure becoming so rare it’s almost mythical: just a third of professors have tenure or are on the tenure track. What spurred on such a massive movement towards hiring adjuncts instead of full-time, tenure-track professors?

The reasons for the shift are, like many things today, largely economic. As state and federal funding for higher education has declined, schools have looked for ways to trim budgets however they can. Given that some schools have seen budget cuts of 20% or more from state sources, it’s not hard to understand why they’ve moved towards hiring instructors who they can pay less, don’t have to offer benefits, and can easily let go when they need to tighten the belt. This flexibility means that colleges can quickly fill vacancies and respond to shifts in student demand, ensuring that they are not providing too many or too few courses in a given semester.

These same economic concerns have also been behind the drop off in tenure track positions. Tenured professors, while providing quality education and research, are expensive to maintain, and many colleges have favored putting the money they save by hiring part-time faculty towards enhancements and services on campus that can draw in greater numbers of students and make them more competitive in the higher education sphere.

The Adjunct Plight

While hiring greater numbers of adjuncts might make economic sense for universities, it hasn’t gone without some serious, often warranted, criticism. That’s because adjuncts, as a temporary workforce, haven’t been treated especially well by the universities who employ them. While there are exceptions, most adjuncts are faced with pretty abysmal working conditions causing this once invisible campus group to become a serious point of contention among many worried about the state of higher education.

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