The Typical U.S. College Professor Makes $3,556 Per Course

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.

This is not how most professors live. (Publicity photo for the forthcoming Netflix series The Chair, starring Sandra Oh, with a release date of August 20.)

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:

The typical American college professor (i.e., an average member of the most numerous class of American professors) makes $3,556 per course with no healthcare or other benefits.

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.

“Never Waste a Good Pandemic,” He Actually Said

I’ve been quoted in Inside Higher Ed this morning.

Two days ago, the Twitter account of United Campus Workers Colorado, a new union local that organizes workers across the university, shared an announcement from the interim dean of arts and sciences at CU Boulder.

In the original message to his colleagues, James W.C. White announced that his college intends to meet (and exceed) a budget-cut target through “incentivized retirements of tenured and tenure-track faculty” in the arts and sciences, with the likely aim of replacing many tenure lines with a smaller number of jobs for contingent workers.

Yesterday, Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed interviewed me by email about why I have said (previously) that we should expect to see many more announcements like this in U.S. higher education in the coming years. Some of my response made it into her article after a comment about tenure by the dean (which I didn’t see before I wrote):

Asked about concerns that his plan chips away at tenure, White said, ‘That horse left the barn a long time ago. We weren’t the ones who did it.’

He added, ‘We have culture in higher education where our value as departments revolves around how many tenure-track positions we have and how many graduate students we have,’ and ‘we need to think about whether that is sustainable in the long run.’

Jonathan W. Wilson, an adjunct instructor of history at several institutions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey who has written about the adjunctification of higher education, said, ‘Things like this news from CU Boulder don’t surprise me at all. We’re going to see more and more stories like this.’

Once colleges proved that contingent workers were an ‘acceptable substitute’ for full-time professors in the classroom, ‘once the pool of excellent underemployed academics became big enough, and once public pressure and financial pressure built up enough, it was just a matter of time for many colleges to start dispensing with even the pretense of tenure,’ he said. ‘It’s an expensive anachronism. Contingent faculty members teach our courses for a small fraction of what tenure-track academics cost. And we’re much easier to fire if you don’t like the job we’re doing in the classroom.’

Like Wolf-Root, Wilson said that many contingent faculty members ‘do engage in research and publication. But mostly we do it on our own time and our own dime. It usually doesn’t result in any job security or recognition.’ Colleges and funding sources ‘don’t actually care much about scholarship,’ though, he added. ‘If they did, they would pay for it. Today, we’re just waiting for a coming wave of retirements to allow them to dispense with the pretense.’

You can read the rest of the article, including the quip from Dean White that I quoted in the post title, here at Inside Higher Ed.

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Edit: Having this opportunity, I would like to clarify one thing about my remarks in the article. When I said that many academic institutions and funders “don’t actually care much about scholarship,” I was referring to the role research has in undergraduate teaching.

Obviously, many institutions do sponsor research even when they don’t absolutely have to. However, hiring adjuncts and other contingent workers to teach core courses reveals that they don’t really believe research, or forms of job security designed to protect research, are crucial for most college teaching. When adjuncts are the only experience some students have with entire disciplines—when colleges routinely allow adjuncts to be the entire face of history, biology, English, chemistry, or mathematics for students who aren’t majoring in those subjects—they are revealing what they really think about the nature of higher education itself.

And because most American colleges and universities exist because they offer undergraduate instruction—that’s where most of their revenue and public support comes from, either directly or indirectly, even if they also get research grants—and because so many academic departments are “service” departments that exist because of general-education courses they provide to students majoring in other disciplines—anything that is not critical for basic college teaching can be sacrificed as pressure builds to cut costs.

Many established academics have been trained to find this unthinkable; they think research and publishing are their core mission because research is how they got hired, tenured, and promoted, and that is the basis of most of their professional relationships outside their institutions. But for purposes of long-term planning in a time of retrenchment, this is an illusion. Their employers don’t actually think research, or the tenure system designed to protect it, is necessary for doing most of their jobs.

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Edit 2: I think it’s worth reading John Warner’s Twitter thread (and now an Inside Higher Ed essay) on this situation. As Warner says, the real question is not whether tenure in its traditional form can be preserved. It’s whether post-tenure higher education will fairly compensate, retain, protect, and promote its non-tenure-track faculty members as they do their work.

Thus, I largely disagree with the demonization of James White that I’ve seen on social media since this news came out, although his wry phrasing was highly infelicitous. White has been ordered to slash his budget, and unless he can somehow resist that order as an interim dean, he effectively has no alternative but to propose cutting tenure lines.

He could have proposed moving to exploitive, degrading adjunct employment instead, but he didn’t. He proposed creating full-time lecturer positions—jobs for people who might conceivably be fairly paid and recognized for their teaching and provided with reasonable job security and health and retirement benefits. This is not inherently the wrong thing to do in the current academic environment. But it does mean dropping a pretense.