A new AFT survey of adjunct faculty underscores the brutal economic reality faced by millions of contingent and adjunct faculty at the nation’s colleges and universities—and illustrates how the pandemic further eroded job security and bolstered the need for public help.
Nearly 4 in 10 adjuncts in the United States need government assistance to get by, with a quarter earning an annual salary below the federal poverty line. Nearly half struggle with extreme job insecurity. And just 20 percent say that they can comfortably cover basic monthly expenses.
The updated “Army of Temps: AFT Adjunct Faculty Quality of Work/Life Report” details feedback from 1,883 respondents at two-year and four-year institutions—both public and private. The 61-question survey, completed between May 21 and Aug. 18, 2020, follows up on a previous survey conducted in 2019.
“This report underlines how precarious, unstable and badly paid contingent academic work was before the pandemic, which only made a grave situation even worse,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, who leads the nation’s largest union of contingent higher education workers. “Adjuncts need more job security during a once-in-a-century crisis, but instead their stresses and strains only mounted.”
When campuses were shut down in March 2020, adjuncts were given only hours to move their classes online, often without sufficient training or technical support to make the transition. The report indicates adjunct faculty received limited help as schedules were thrown into turmoil.
Contingent workers entered the 2020-21 academic year already struggling with food insecurity, healthcare coverage and housing issues. They then faced the tumult of uncertain enrollments and shaky employment prospects, coupled with the anxiety of returning to the classroom amid a patchwork public health response to the pandemic.
While some indicators improved marginally from a year earlier, others flatlined or declined:
- One-quarter of respondents earn less than $25,000 annually.
- Only 20 percent report being able to comfortably cover basic monthly expenses.
- Fewer than half of survey respondents have access to employer-provided health insurance, and nearly 20 percent rely on Medicaid.
- Nearly 45 percent of faculty members surveyed have put off getting needed healthcare, including mental health services, and 64 percent have forgone dental care.
- 48 percent struggle with job security, reporting that they don’t know if they will have a teaching job until one month before the beginning of the academic year.
- For 3 out of 4 contingent faculty, employment is only guaranteed from term to term.
- A plan for a secure retirement is out of reach for most contingent faculty, with 37 percent reporting they don’t see a path to retirement.
Although the outlook for adjuncts seems grim, many are organizing to fight back. “It’s no surprise that adjuncts are turning to their unions as vehicles for voice, respect, job security, proper benefits and higher wages,” said Weingarten. “And they’re also advocating on the state and federal level for adequate and sustainable funding to fix these problems at their root.”
A little perspective
Before the pandemic began, it would have taken an additional $15 billion in higher education funding to return to pre-2008 recession levels of state and federal investment in higher education. However, even with that decline in public investment, core revenues—including government appropriations, government grants and contracts, and private gifts—rose significantly between 2009 and 2019, while student debt spiraled.
Over the last four decades, the academic labor pool has shifted dramatically: Forty years ago, 70 percent of academic employees were tenured or on the tenure track. Today, that figure has flipped; 75 percent of faculty are not eligible for tenure, and 47 percent hold part-time positions. Meanwhile, the numbers of management staff and their salaries have snowballed.
“It is the height of hypocrisy that while administrators swell their numbers and continue to command massive salaries, the adjuncts who teach the classes and conduct the research that make these institutions run are given short shrift,” Weingarten said.
Of the AFT’s more than 200,000 higher education members, 85,000 are contingent and 35,000 are graduate employees.
Directing current resources and additional public funds to instruction and to lowering tuition would start to move the needle away from contingency and toward security for students and the academic workforce, as would examining the administrative malfeasance that has led to a poorly compensated workforce and students impoverished by tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
The Build Back Better Act would have been a first step toward a New Deal for Higher Education, with a $22 billion investment in American colleges and universities, including funding for evidence-based student support programs, support for historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions, and increases to the Pell Grant to make college more affordable.
Build Back Better also aimed to strengthen the social safety net on which adjuncts and contingent faculty rely, with expanded access to healthcare, lower prescription drug prices, lower child care costs, expanded paid parental leave, and a host of other improvements that would have directly benefited contingent faculty and other members of our community.
While the bill did not make it out of the Senate, there is hope that individual pieces can be either passed as stand-alone bills or incorporated into the Higher Education Act reauthorization.
The full AFT report can be viewed here.
[AFT Media Relations]