Adjunct pay: A quarter of part-time college faculty receive public assistance.

Someone Calculated How Many Adjunct Professors Are on Public Assistance, and the Number Is Startling

Someone Calculated How Many Adjunct Professors Are on Public Assistance, and the Number Is Startling

A blog about business and economics.
April 13 2015 1:12 PM

Someone Calculated How Many Adjunct Professors Are on Public Assistance, and the Number Is Startling

It's hard out here for an academic. Really, really hard.

National Adjunct Walkout Day

Once in a while, someone publishes an article about adjunct professors who resort to food stamps in order to survive on the rock-bottom pay that so many college instructors are expected to live on. But until today, I had never seen a statistic summing up how many academics are actually resorting to government aid. The number, it turns out, is rather large. According to an analysis of census data by the University of California–Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education, 25 percent of "part-time college faculty" and their families now receive some sort public assistance, such as Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, food stamps, cash welfare, or the Earned Income Tax Credit. For what it's worth, that's not quite so bad as the situation faced by fast-food employees and home health care aids, roughly half of whom get government help. But, in case there were any doubt, an awful lot of Ph.D.s and master's degree holders are basically working poor.

Low-Wage Occupations and Public Assistance Rates


UC–Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education


I don't think it would be quite accurate to say that 25 percent of all adjuncts are getting aid, since some do in fact have full-time jobs that would show up in the census as their occupation. Still, we're talking about a large group of highly educated individuals. According to NBC News, which reported on some of the labor center's data prior to publication, "families of close to 100,000 part-time faculty members are enrolled in public assistance programs."

Despite their symbolic value, food stamps aren't the most popular program among adjuncts. According to the NBC report (I haven't been able to find these specific numbers published elsewhere), 7 percent of part-time faculty are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, 7 percent are signed up for Medicaid (though the number may be higher thanks to Obamacare's expansion of the insurance program), and "one in five" receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, which boosts pay for low-wage workers.

Over the past several decades, colleges and universities have come to rely on adjuncts in order to keep down education costs and tuition. According to the American Association of University Professors, "more than half of all faculty hold part-time appointments." But despite the awful compensation these teachers receive, the unfortunate reality is that instruction costs per student have still risen faster than inflation at schools in recent years. (Though they did fall a bit during the recession.) If we ever want universities to pay part-time educators a decent wage, one of three things needs to happen: Either institutions will have to find savings elsewhere in their budgets, states are going to have to refund their higher education systems, or students are going to have to pay more. The first two seem unlikely, unfortunate as that may be. And the third is a choice nobody really wants to make.

Jordan Weissmann is Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.