Demand for adjunct professors creates uncertainty in academia

As role expands, adjuncts struggle to make ends meet

CRYSTAL LAKE – A master’s degree or doctorate does not guarantee health benefits or earnings any greater than a $20-something thousand annual salary in the world of academia.

As community colleges and universities deal with tighter budgets, adjunct professors have taken on a greater role at institutions across the country, giving colleges a cheaper alternative to tenured professors.

The trend is no different at McHenry County College, where adjunct faculty make up between 60 to 70 percent of those teaching classes. But as demand for adjunct instructors increases, the ability for those filling the roles to make ends meet has become more difficult.

Adjunct professors can work no more than 29 credit hours per year at the college to keep them under the 30-credit-hour limit that would make them a full-time employee and require the college to offer health insurance.

“They can get adjuncts for about 25 percent to 33 percent of what it costs for a full-time instructor and not need to pay for benefits,” said Peter Ponzio, president of the adjunct faculty association. “We sign a contract semester to semester, so it gives the college a lot of flexibility. When you can get three or four people for the price of one, it makes a lot of business sense.”

Adjunct professors at McHenry County College on average make between $12,000 to $18,000 per year. For an adjunct professor with a master’s degree, working at the college for more than 13 semesters and teaching the maximum load of 24 contact hours per year, the salary is capped at $19,560. 

The same adjunct professor with a doctoral degree has a salary cap of $20,424.

Wage limits mean long days for some instructors. Bob Reass, a math instructor at the college for 14 years, also serves as head of math tutoring. On Mondays and Wednesdays, his days go from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

And while tenured faculty generally do more research and publications, Reass said the difference in quality of instruction between adjuncts and tenured faculty is far less than the difference in salary.

“From a student perspective, I would doubt most could tell the difference,” Reass said. “There is just not that much of a gap. When full-time faculty get tenure, their motivation might actually wane some in certain cases. Adjuncts never know if they are going to have a job next semester. They have to stay motivated.”

Part of the problem for adjunct faculty stems from a shift in the educational system across community colleges and universities, Ponzio said.

In 1970, adjunct faculty made up roughly 20 percent of the teaching force at colleges and were mostly retired professors or professionals who wanted to teach for a new experience. Today, adjuncts make up half of all instructors at colleges and universities across the country and are mostly younger professionals attempting to stand out and earn an elusive full-time professor position.

Ponzio, who fits the mold of the 1970-adjunct having come from a chief financial officer position at a Fortune 400 company to pursue a passion in teaching, said he is in a uncommon position as most of his colleagues work at two or three community colleges to make ends meet.

The constant traveling from school to school is a double-edged sword for adjuncts who want to gain experience and credentials for a tenured position but cannot invest the time in one single institution necessary to ingratiate themselves in the school’s community.

“There are going to be more and more adjuncts because it makes business sense. I understand it, I really do, I just don’t know if it is a good trend,” Ponzio said. “I think the answer will come when we as a country evaluate where we want to go with our educational system.”

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