Professor Salaries: The Truth

collegeIf you ever thought the life of a college or university professor sounds pretty sweet, you’re not alone. From the outside, these educators may appear to have it all: lots of authority, only a few hours of work per week, summers off, and one assumes, high compensation.  While it is true that some professors do only teach a few hours per week, most spend the rest of the time, even summers, engaged in research. It is also the case that professor salaries are on average shockingly low. The truth is that professor salaries are in many cases on par with or even lower than the salaries of America’s lowest paid workers–namely, workers in the service industry. That’s right–you may make more working full time at a Subway or Chipotle than you do teaching Renaissance literature or algebra on a college or university campus.

Professor Salaries: Often Below Poverty Line

First, it is important to note that there are several different types of professors. In the past, most professors  were employed on a full-time basis in what are readily called “tenure track” hiring lines. These professors were generally hired on multi-year contracts from the onset and after a grueling seven-year period of proving their worthiness, they were given tenure (basically, a job for life) and a promotion. On average, these tenured professors made a lot more than their peers working in the K-12 system but less than many other highly trained professionals (e.g., doctors or lawyers). All and all, it was a decent way to make a living, but today, tenure-track hiring lines are in decline.

Since the early 2000s, the number of adjunct professors and limited-term appointments in higher education has skyrocketed. Indeed, according to the New Faculty Majority–an advocacy group for part-time college and university professors–a staggering 75% of postsecondary teaching is now carried out by faculty working part-time and in some cases on limited-term appointments. What’s the difference? A professor on a limited-term appointment generally still has a full-time position with a full course load (albeit often a higher course load than a tenured professor), but they have no presumption of being rehired. The positions are usually only 9-months long and at many colleges and universities, these positions cannot be renewed. But the situation gets much worse.

Today, most postsecondary level teaching is done by part-time faculty or “adjuncts.” A 2015 article in The Atlantic, crunched the numbers this way: “Adjunct professors earned a median of $2,000 per semester-long class during the 2012-13 academic year, according to an AAUP survey of thousands of part-time faculty members. While varying classloads make it difficult to calculate the typical adjunct’s annual earnings, NPR reported in 2013 that the average yearly pay for adjuncts was between $20,000 and $25,000, and a March 2015 survey conducted by Pacific Standard among nearly 500 adjuncts found that a majority earn less than $20,000 a year from teaching.” (1)

To put part-time professor salaries into perspective consider these facts:

  • According to The Harvard Crimson, in 2012, the average tenured full professor at Harvard made $198,400.
  • In order for an average adjunct professor to make as much as an average full professor at Harvard, they would have to teach at least 99 courses per year, but this would be impossible to schedule. On average, tenured full professors at Harvard (and most tenured full professors nationwide) teach no more than four courses per year. But let’s set Harvard’s exceptional conditions aside…
  • Even when compared to an average professor (e.g., an untenured assistant professor working at the private four-year college), adjuncts struggle to keep up. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the average assistant professor salary in the private system was $44,764 in 2014-2015; an adjunct professor would still need to teach over 20 courses per year to keep up with this already low full-time average salary.
  • Finally, it is important to note that like full-time faculty, part-time faculty do report a range of salaries. While some adjuncts are paid over $7,500 per course (usually at private colleges and universities, such as Columbia and NYU), many others report making even less than $2000 per course. (1)

For more information on professor salaries national wide, visit the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Chronicle Data site.

Demographic Profile of Adjunct Faculty

Adjunct faculty are represented across age and gender groups and work in many different types of institutions. 29% are under 40, 33% between 40 and 54, 25% are between 55 and 64, and 13% above 65. Women are slightly more likely than men (52%) to occupy an adjunct faculty position. According to a recent 2015 TIAA-CREF survey, PhDs in the humanities and social sciences also do struggle more than their colleagues in STEM fields (65% of adjunct faculty report teaching in the liberal arts). (2) However, the reliance on poorly paid part-time or contingent faculty is a problem across fields. Computer science, biology and mathematics also report high numbers of adjunct professors, and they typically report wages just as low as faculty in the humanities and social sciences. (3)

Older Adjuncts Can’t Afford to Retire 

Octlghjilmue-jake-barfordne of the saddest truths about professor salaries is that many of these part-time faculty will never be able to retire. Indeed, as suggested above, many adjuncts (13%) are already over 65 and in the coming years, this number is expected to rise. Why? The reason is simple. With low incomes and high student debt loads, most adjuncts already live in poverty or close to the poverty line and have difficulty ever paying back their student loans. Since they have low wages, high debt loads, no guaranteed work, and often no or sub-par benefits, saving for retirement is impossible. Simply put, retiring just isn’t an option for the vast majority of part-time college and university professors. TIAA-CREF’s recent study on adjunct’s and retirement found that 36% of part-time faculty under 40 are not confident they will be able to retire and across age groups, 37% of liberal arts adjuncts are not confident they will be able to retire. (4)

If you think the situation isn’t dire, consider the case of Mary Votjko. In 2013, Professor Vojtko, a French professor, died under the deplorably sad circumstances. She was in her early 80s, fighting cancer, and still teaching but like many older adjuncts, her institution wanted her out and in the process, they reduced her course load to 1 course per semester. When she died, Daniel M. Kovalik, also an adjunct professor, published the following account in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

On Sept. 1, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor who had taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, passed away at the age of 83. She died as the result of a massive heart attack she suffered two weeks before. As it turned out, I may have been the last person she talked to. On Aug. 16, I received a call from a very upset Margaret Mary. She told me that she was under an incredible amount of stress. She was receiving radiation therapy for the cancer that had just returned to her, she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity — a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself. The letter said that if she did not meet with the caseworker the following Monday, her case would be turned over to Orphans’ Court. For a proud professional like Margaret Mary, this was the last straw; she was mortified. She begged me to call Adult Protective Services and tell them to leave her alone, that she could take care of herself and did not need their help. I agreed to. Sadly, a couple of hours later, she was found on her front lawn, unconscious from a heart attack. She never regained consciousness. (5)

While Professor Vojtko’s case may sound exceptional, sadly, too many older part-time scholars now risk finding themselves in her position.

Unionized Faculty Still Struggle

Unions help but they are not the only answer. Adjuncts working in unionized institutions also continue to struggle.  To illustrate, consider the situation in New York City. While faculty are both NYU and the City University of New York (CUNY) are both unionized, CUNY adjuncts make about half of what NYU adjuncts make per course. The difference largely reflects the vast differences between the public and private systems in the region. In some regions, unionized faculty at public universities do make more, have better benefits and more job security than their counterparts at non-unionized private institutions (e.g., this is the case in many regions of California). The bottom line is that unions support educators and are committed to raising part-time professor salaries, but with the bar so low, bringing part-time faculty up to a living wage may take a very long time in both the public and private systems. Read on for more information on why it is important to support teacher’s unions.

What Students and Parents Can Do

If you’re a student, be aware of the fact that your professors–the people who generously share their knowledge, grade your papers, write your reference letters and respond to your emergency emails at midnight–may very well be making only $2000 to $7000 to teach your course. Better yet, educate yourself! Find out what professor salaries are at your college or university. If part-time faculty are being screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-10-04-13-pmexploited, find ways to support them and of course, respect their time and appreciate the knowledge they share with you in the classroom throughout the semester.

If you’re a parent, you can do even more. Before enrolling your child in college or university, find out how many of the institution’s faculty members are employed in part-time versus tenure-track and tenured positions. Investigate professor salaries at the college or university. If the college or university has a high percentage of adjuncts teaching courses for only $2000 to $3000 per course, think again. After all, if you’re paying over $6000 per course and over $50,000 annually in tuition, where exactly are your tuition dollars going? Evidently, they are not going to support part-time professor salaries. Finally, be proactive–give a small donation, even just a few dollars, to the New Faculty Majority–one of the only organizations committed to giving a voice to adjunct faculty and fighting for their right to make a living wage. If you already have a child attending a college or university with exploitative labor practices, when your child’s college or university comes knocking on your door for a donation, let them know that you don’t support their treatment of adjuncts and can’t donate or only wish to donate if you can be assured the money will support efforts to increase part-time professor salaries.

(1) Chronicle Data,

(2) Faculty Career and Retirement Survey, TIAA-CREF Institute (2014).

(3) Chronicle Data,

(4) Faculty Career and Retirement Survey, TIAA-CREF Institute (2014).

(5) Daniel Kovalik, “Death of an adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor of French for 25 years, died underpaid and underappreciated at age 83,”  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (September 18, 2013).

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