Study Explores Job Satisfaction Among Adjunct Faculty

A recent study sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers surveyed part-time and adjunct faculty nationwide. The project looked at the profile, working conditions and job satisfaction of this rapidly growing group of academic professionals.

young professor

A Growing Force

Adjunct and part-time faculty make up a significant - and growing - segment of postsecondary educators. As 47% of all faculty (not counting graduate student-teachers) and 70% of community college faculty, these instructors actually teach the majority of undergraduate courses at American public colleges and universities They're typically employed on limited-term contracts, teaching anywhere from one class to a full load, and very few will ever find themselves on the tenure track.

Despite the significant role that they play in higher education, very little data has been collected on this group. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) hired independent research group Peter Hart Research Associates to conduct a nationwide survey of part-time and adjunct faculty at 2-year and 4-year public and private nonprofit postsecondary institutions. The report, American Academic: A National Survey of Part-time/Adjunct Faculty, is part of the AFT's Faculty and College Excellence (FACE) campaign, which is dedicated to bringing equitable salary and working conditions to contingent faculty, as well as increasing the corps of full-time and tenured instructors.

The project sought to address three key questions:

  • Who are part-time and adjunct faculty members?
  • What are their working conditions?
  • How do they view their work and the challenges they face on campus?

Although the survey was sponsored by the AFT, it included both union and nonunion faculty in order to get a more representative national sample.


To build a profile of American contingent faculty members, the survey collected basic workplace statistics and demographic information. They found that 59% are employed at 4-year institutions, with about one in three at public colleges and universities and one in four at private schools. The remaining 41% - a significant percentage - work at 2-year colleges. They have varying degrees of seniority at their institutions, with 57% working under 10 years in their current positions and roughly 41% over 11 years. Most work multiple jobs, the majority of which are not teaching-related, although many have multiple teaching positions and a non-teaching job.

The vast majority have either a master's degree or PhD/professional degree, with only 13% reporting that a bachelor's is their highest degree. Those at 4-year universities are more likely to have a PhD than their peers at 2-year colleges. Overall, contingent faculty are a roughly even mix of women and men, but women are the majority (54%) at 2-year colleges and men make up the majority (56%) at 4-year institutions. The gender imbalance is strongest at 4-year private schools, where the contingent faculty is 63% male, but gender is basically evenly divided at public institutions. Ethnically, contingent faculty are over 80% white non-Hispanics, with small percentages of black, Hispanic, Asian and 'other.' Almost half are under 50 years old.

Reasons for Teaching Part-Time

From American Academic: A National Survey of Part-time/Adjunct Faculty, page 10.

Job Satisfaction is High, but the Devil's in the Details

In order to understand how satisfied contingent faculty are in their current positions, the surveyors started with a basic question: How do you feel about working part time? The answers were split half and half between individuals who are happy part time and those who would prefer to have a full-time teaching position. Those who are content tend to be over 50 and have more seniority, defined by the number of years they've worked in their current position. About half prefer part-time because they already have another full-time position, and about a third prefer it because it gives them more time for personal matters. The researchers also found a surprising split by academic concentration: instructors in the physical sciences tend to prefer part-time positions, whereas those in the social sciences or humanities show a slight preference for full-time.

The researchers also explored why part-time faculty members take on these positions (see graph above). The majority do it simply because they 'enjoy teaching,' a response that faculty members above age 50 are much more likely to give than younger faculty. Only fifteen percent teach part-time because they hope it will be a 'steppingstone to a full time position,' and only one in four say that it provides them with 'important income and benefits.' This may be related to the general sense that these faculty members are under-compensated.

Issues that need improvement

From American Academic: A National Survey of Part-time/Adjunct Faculty, page 12.

The researchers also asked how satisfied faculty members are with their overall job conditions. The majority (62%) were 'very' or 'mainly' satisfied, but over a third (37%) are only 'somewhat' or 'not at all' satisfied. Unsurprisingly, those who would prefer a full-time position are much less satisfied with the general conditions. There was also a division by institution type. Over two-thirds of faculty at 2-year colleges and private 4-year institutions are 'very' or 'mainly' satisfied, but only half of the faculty at public 4-year universities rated themselves as 'very' or 'mainly' satisfied.

The study also sought to identify what part-time and adjunct faculty like and dislike about their jobs. The survey showed that they're especially satisfied with academic freedom, class sizes and workload. They're also generally satisfied with the level of communication and support from their administrators, institutional support for office hours and the evaluation procedures for promotion and retention at their institutions. It's worth noting that those at 4-year institutions are much less satisfied with evaluation procedures than those at 2-year institutions.

Job security is another issue that tends to be divided by institution type. Those at 4-year private schools and 2-year colleges are mostly satisfied with their job security, but those at public 4-year institutions are divided.

Issues that typically need improvement tend to focus on compensation. Most part-time faculty are dissatisfied with their salaries and access to retirement benefits and health insurance. They're also unhappy with the availability of full-time permanent positions at their institutions.

The survey also addressed the presence of professional support and advancement opportunities. Part-time faculty were roughly split on whether they felt they were given a fair opportunity to obtain a full-time tenured position. However, a large majority (70%) were 'very' or 'mainly' satisfied with the amount of professional support they receive at their institution. When researchers asked those who were dissatisfied with their professional support how professional development programs could be improved, 14% said that there should be more access to training, 10% requested more funding for conferences and training, 8% asked for more competitive salaries, 8% wanted more overall development funding and 7% asked for better administrative communication.

When asked if conditions were generally improving over the past few years, 53% felt there was no significant change. The remaining faculty members were split between the sense that conditions are getting better (23%) and that conditions are getting worse (22%).

The Financial Puzzle

One of the most common complaints among contingent faculty is that they're under-compensated in terms of both salary and benefits, even when they teach a full course load. Although the survey didn't offer a comparison between part-time and adjunct faculty and full-time and tenured faculty, they did establish a financial profile for contingent faculty.

They found that 35% earn less than $2,500 per class, and 42% earn more, which adds up to less than $15,000 per year for a plurality (46%) and more than $15,000 per year for just 35 percent. Since the majority of part-time faculty members have other jobs, the survey also looked at total household income. They found that 20% earn less than $50,000 per year, 40% earn between $50 and $100,000 per year and 21% earn over $100,000 per year. Instructors at 2-year colleges tend to earn less per class than those at 4-year institutions, but their annual income figures are similar. The AFT, who sponsored the study, were presumably be happy to learn that, on average, union faculty members earn significantly more than their nonunion counterparts per class and per year.

Health benefits do appear to be linked to course load. Overall, only 28% of part-time faculty members reported getting health benefits through their school, but 39% of those who teach three or more courses per term receive health benefits. Health coverage also differs significantly by institution. It's lowest at 2-year colleges, where only 16% of part-time faculty receive health benefits. At 4-year institutions, 42% of part-time faculty at public schools receive health insurance, whereas only 28% of those at private schools are covered. Union members once again do better than nonunion instructors.

Retirement benefits are also scarce, with only 39% of part-time faculty reporting that they have a plan through their institution, and only 26% reporting that their employer contributes to the plan. Other benefits are even more rare: Only 29% receive paid sick leave, 17% get paid personal leave and a shockingly low 9% reported getting paid vacation.

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