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Meet your new professor: Transient, poorly paid

This is the time of year many high school seniors are getting their long-awaited, highly anticipated college acceptance letters.
Image: Students walk to class at Harper College in Palatine
Students walk to class at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, February 21, 2013.John Gress / Reuters / X01637

This is the time of year many high school seniors are getting their long-awaited, highly anticipated college acceptance letters. What those letters and the glossy admissions brochures don’t talk about is a surprising fact: despite their graduate degrees and years of experience, the large majority -- three out of four -- of teachers in college classrooms are in low-paying, part-time jobs or insecure, non-tenure positions.

In its annual survey on faculty compensation and the economics of higher education, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) finds 76 percent of teachers in colleges and universities are what the organization calls “contingent,” meaning full-time faculty members who are off the secure and relatively well-paid tenure track or part-timers (often known as adjuncts) and graduate students.

The median pay for adjuncts is just $2,700 for teaching a three-month course – and these professors are almost always on their own when it comes to health insurance and other benefits.

“There are PhD's working as adjuncts and living in poverty, on food stamps, etc.,” an adjunct professor who lives and works in California wrote to NBC News. She is a poet with a master's degree, who asked that we not identify her or her school for fear of losing her job.

“Despite the fact that I basically work full-time hours teaching, tending to administrative duties, and holding office hours,” she wrote, “I am on the verge of renting a garage apartment that does not have a kitchen or bathroom because that's all I can afford (and barely).”

She claims the system is not only unfair to her and her colleagues, but to students as well. Despite increasing tuition bills and a possible doubling in student loan rates just a few months from now, she wrote, the students “are not being given the quality their money is paying for, e.g. a well-rested professor who isn't a walking zombie from holding numerous teaching jobs to barely make the rent each month.”

Colleges, however, argue that they have no choice but to employ a flexible, non-tenured workforce.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, said the "slow, steady increase" in non-tenured and adjunct faculty positions is "largely a response to current economic conditions."

"Tenure," he said, "often results in an employment guarantee that can last 40 years, and very few organizations in our society make those guarantees anymore."

Hartle takes issue with the AAUP's assertion that part-time faculty offer students a lower-quality educational experience. While acknowledging they "don't play the same role on campus," Hartle points out that, in a changing economy, these contingent faculty slots may be to students' advantage, allowing colleges to teach new and evolving subjects and courses.

“I enjoy teaching!” wrote the California adjunct. “I just wish I could get paid a livable wage to do it.”

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