Late last month, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released its Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession for 2020–2021. It has been published in the AAUP’s Bulletin and is available to download on its website.
This report now represents the most authoritative and up-to-date information we have about the basic employment conditions of college faculty members in the United States.
We need to talk about this report because Americans have many misconceptions about the lives of college professors. These misconceptions are encouraged by cynical rhetoric from politicians and pundits seeking to undermine our work. They also come from popular movies and television shows that depict professors enjoying lavish salaries and palatial campus offices.
These misconceptions can even come from employment websites, which tend to publish fabricated information. Glassdoor, for example, claims the average American adjunct professor makes more than $50,000 per year, and ZipRecruiter claims the same figure is $67,000. Such salaries would hardly be extravagant by middle-class standards in most cities. But in reality, a typical adjunct professor can expect to make only about half that much—with no benefits—if they can get full-time work at all.
Worse still, public misconceptions are not necessarily challenged by the behavior of tenured faculty members at elite research universities, who lead our professional associations and represent us on the public stage. So it’s important to highlight some of the data in this report.
First, the AAUP’s report shows that the typical American college professor today is an adjunct. In other words, part-time contingent faculty members (professors hired by the course and considered “part-time” workers no matter how many courses they teach) are the largest single class of college professor.
By how wide a margin? According to data from 2019, the AAUP report says, 42.9% of American college professors are part-time contingent faculty members. That means the adjunct workforce is significantly larger than the combined number of tenured professors (26.5% of the faculty) or tenure-track professors still seeking tenure (10.5%). It is also more than twice the number of full-time contingent faculty members, such as “visiting” professors or “professors of practice” (20.0%).
It’s important to note that these figures do not include graduate student workers. We’re talking just about professors, not TAs.
Here’s another way to look at those figures: Across American higher education, adjuncts outnumber tenure-seeking junior professors four to one. That means adjunct professors, more than new professors who will one day have tenure, represent the future of the professoriate.
Even among the elite of American universities—doctorate-granting institutions that pride themselves on using the tenure system to protect the freedom of their researchers—adjuncts are nearly one third of the faculty, outnumbering tenure-seeking professors two to one.
There is an important bright spot in these numbers, however. The AAUP report finds that the proportion of the faculty holding full-time contingent appointments—with benefits and better pay than adjuncts get—has been increasing over the last decade and a half.
In 2006, full-time contingent workers were 15.5% of the workforce; as of 2019, they are 20.0%, with steady growth in their relative numbers since 2009. Making inquiries on relevant campuses, the AAUP’s researchers “found that one reason for the shift is that some institutions are taking actions to improve the working conditions for contingent faculty members.” Hooray.
But for now, it’s important to recognize another key element of the AAUP report: professors’ compensation. For adjuncts, the news is unsurprisingly grim.
The data on adjunct pay are more limited than the data for other kinds of professors. But according to information from 360 American institutions in 2019-2020, the average pay of part-time faculty members is $3,556 per course. [Edit: Let’s be clear—many adjuncts never see wages that are anywhere close to this national mean.] Furthermore, only 1.6% of colleges offer all their part-time professors medical benefits, and only 7.1% offer all their part-time professors any retirement benefits.
To underscore what this means for U.S. higher education in 2021:
If you aren’t familiar with how colleges work behind the scenes, it may be difficult to guess what this means for adjuncts’ annual wages. In fact, adjuncts often have very unreliable employment—being hired and (unofficially) laid off unpredictably from semester to semester. Because of this, as well as other factors, accurate annual wage data still simply don’t exist for adjuncts.
But nationwide, most college professors would recognize teaching three or four courses per regular academic semester as a full-time workload. If we add two summer courses for the sake of a year-round number, that means the typical college professor would be lucky to make $35,560 per year, and often might expect to make more like $21,336—that is, during the years when they could cobble together full-time teaching work at different institutions.
Now, some adjuncts do work on a truly part-time basis, teaching a course here and there on the side while maintaining another full-time career that allows them such fripperies as, say, going to the dentist. That is what many college administrators use as a justification for the shabby way they treat their professors.
But the reality is that many adjuncts today depend exclusively or primarily on their income as college teachers. This is what they face. This is how the typical college professor is rewarded for their work as they keep American higher education going.
If you’re interested in the current state of U.S. higher education, there’s a lot more information where this came from—including salary information for tenure-track professors and (ahem) college presidents, among many other topics.