Adjunct professors are often the lifeblood of higher education institutions. But those professors say the lack of pay and benefits for their work is creating an academic underclass.
Milagros Font is a college professor, so many would assume she’s making a decent living.
“I had food stamps for one semester,” Font said.
Professors in poverty? The answer is complex. Milagros Font and Evan Rowe are adjunct professors, which mean they are essentially highly educated part-timers.
“I’ve been on food stamps, for sure,” said Rowe, concurring with Font’s experience. “If you’re making $18,000 a year; you gotta figure out how to live on $18,000 a year.”
Font says it’s all about the bottom line.
“Colleges depend a lot on adjunct professors because they’re not expensive to the colleges because they don’t have benefits,” Font explains.
Big universities, such as FIU or the University of Miami, can use their armies of grad students. The former community colleges don’t have that luxury. Miami-Dade College told NBC 6 that 48% of its classes are taught by adjunct professors. Similarly, Broward College says adjuncts teach about 56% of its class sections.
Since adjuncts are paid by the class, and are allowed to teach only three to four classes per semester, they can’t make much of a living on that salary alone.
“No benefits, low pay, and that’s what I call private sector envy, where they say, ‘Oh, go toward the sweat shop model, drive wages as low as you can, that’s always good,” said Rowe.
Miami-Dade College spokesman Juan Mendieta said the debate about relying on adjuncts, and the debate on how much they should earn is a national issue reflecting neglect toward state and community colleges.
“I think the underfunding of higher education has created a large number of adjuncts in teaching positions across the country,” Mendieta said.
The colleges will tell you that adjunct professorships aren't designed to be anybody’s primary source of income. They’re really hoping to attract professionals to bring knowledge and expertise from the field into the classroom.
For example, Ignacio Vila is a 25-year, veteran crime scene detective with the Broward Sheriff’s Office. He teaches at Miami-Dade College as a side job.
“Can you live here in South Florida off an adjunct’s pay? No, that’s why most adjuncts do have a full-time job,” Vila explains. “Most adjuncts do this as a second paycheck, but also maybe with the hope of being hired full-time with that same institution.”
Milagros Font works two jobs teaching English to adults, but they only add up to about $20,000 a year. She’s never been able to land a full-time professorship, and neither has Evan Rowe, who teaches history and political science.
These are fields in which jobs outside of academia are scarce. They have each considered taking jobs as high school teachers, which come with higher salaries, but Rowe and Font both have a passion for teaching college-level subjects.
“The real issue, and this is what they do to keep this large group of adjuncts, is they simply won’t offer employment at a frequent enough basis,” says Rowe.
Mendieta points out that Miami-Dade College pays the highest rates for adjuncts in the state, but acknowledges if the college had more funding from the state, it could make more of those adjuncts full-time professors.
“In an ideal world you always hope you could do more, maybe open up more slots, but based on the funding model and how our funding is, the situation is what it is,” Mendieta said.
Unless that changes, students at local state colleges should get used to the fact that the professor teaching their class might be making less money than they are working at the mall.
“Give us the value that we deserve, we are professionals,” said Font.
And that is today’s lesson in higher education.