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How to Make a Living as an Adjunct: Teach 35 Classes

by Jeffrey Wilson

I got my masters in the late 1980s, during a time when lots of colleges were churning out lots of higher degrees. I worked as an adjunct for several institutions for 18 years, waiting and hoping for the opportunity to get a full time job. I’d been told from grad school on that there was going to be a lot of professors retiring in the 1990s, and then again after the turn of the century, and that if I got a part time adjunct job with a college they would eventually promote me from the inside. In the end, that’s exactly what happened. But I didn’t realize it would take so long to happen. In fact, by the time it did happen I’d long since given up hope that it would ever happen.

First thing, the retirements never happened. When the head of our department “retired” about ten years ago he just moved one office over and started teaching online classes, still keeping his position. Further more, there are so many retired people out there, living on pensions and teaching a few classes for fun and extra money, not to mention the the folks right out of school with Masters Degrees and PhDs who are desperate to get started, that the colleges have no interest in hiring more expensive full time faculty. The fact that there are even folks out there with PhDs, toiling away as adjuncts is the main reason why I’ve never gone to get my own PhD. Why go through all that trouble and expense to simply slip into a different line for the same part-time job?

After working for Central Texas College for eight years or so, teaching one subject (eight week semesters, five semesters a year) and making a meager salary at most, I finally took the advice that several colleagues had been giving me for several years. I went back to school and got enough graduate credit in another subject to enable me to teach that subject. 18 hours of credit is what is required here in Texas. After I did that my earnings potential went up every year for several years. In three or four years I went from making about $22,000 a year to teaching two subjects for three colleges and making $70,000 or more, still as an adjunct.

Then, after about 12 years as a regular adjunct with Central Texas College, I was promoted to be an Extended Category Adjunct Faculty, which recognized the fact that I was teaching way over the regular, legal course load (9 classes a year in Texas – I was teaching more like 35). Their accreditation period came up and someone on the main campus panicked when they realized what a few of us Adjuncts were doing.

It turned out that if you worked for several different campuses of the same college, both online and conventional, with none of them keeping up with what the others are doing, you could teach a lot of classes and make enough to live a decent life, buy a house and pay a mortgage.

This new ECAF position provided me all the benefits and retirement of a full time professor while I still remained a part-time worker, signing a new contract to teach a hand full of new classes each semester. That allowed the college to keep using my talents as much as they had been before while avoiding the accreditation issues of over using their adjunct faculty. Then, after 18 years of working part time, the college signed a contract with the state to teach classes at a state prison in West Texas. This was my opportunity. After 18 years they finally hired me as a full-time professor.

My new job was to drive 150 miles a day, 4 days a week, teaching prisoners at a state prison is west Texas. That full-time job (contracted to teach 15 classes a year) paid me as much as I was making teaching all those classes as an Adjunct. Plus, I still taught most of those old classes along with my full-time responsibilities. I would drive down to a local high school and teach three AP, college credit classes in the morning, then drive to the prison and teach a class or two, and then drive back to town and teach a few evening classes on base. 150 miles a day, four days a week.

I did that for almost 3 years, making almost $100,000 a year. I felt like I’d finally made it to the position I’d always dreamed of. Then, after almost two years of feeling good and being well paid, the state funded prison job went away. Even though I’d just received a letter from the main campus offering me another years contract, I was immediately told by my Dean that “there was no money in the budget” for me to be kept on as a full time professor or ECAF, and I was re-hired as a simple adjunct.

I was just about to turn 50, scheduled to have my first colonoscopy, and now I have no medical benefits. Then the same Dean loaded me up with 6 extra classes for the next semester. After over 20 years of teaching for this institution I was back to feeling like a simple cog in a large, impersonal machine. They were going to get their classes taught for as little money as they could. That was the only thing that mattered.

Today, I’m working as an Aide in a local middle school, which provides me with a ridiculously low salary, but all the full medical benefits of a full time teacher. At the same time I’m slowly working in an alternative program to get certified to teach my subjects full time in the public school. Meanwhile, I continue to work as an Adjunct, teaching online for Victoria College, and as an “Associate Professor” (adjunct Instructor – Wal Mart has “associates” too) for the University of Phoenix.

On the one hand, I feel like I wasted 20 years of my life. If I had it to do all over again I would have gone ahead and gotten my PhD right after getting my Masters, but I was burned out by then and just wanted to get a job. I thought I could get one at a community college like the one I started school at. Work there in a more relaxed atmosphere and spend 20 or 30 years as a respected professional. But things didn’t work out that way.

Remember the big retirement that my grad school profs predicted back in the late 1980s? Lots of old geezers letting go of their full-time positions in the 1990s? It turns out the real demographic change that occurred was not the big retirement, but a shift to PhDs getting all the full time jobs at community colleges while something like 60% of all the college classes in the country are taught by badly paid Adjuncts. The real shocking realization, I suppose, that I discovered after years of working in a liberal arts institution, was that the only thing college administrators respected was the bottom dollar, and that while the full-time faculty got the status, the offices, and the easy schedules (no classes in the evening or early in the morning, no classes on the weekend – I was paid $68,000 and all the benefits to teach just 15 classes a year?), Adjunct faculty are all replaceable.

At the same time, I’m left with a huge amount of pride in the job I did, reinforced every time I run into a former student somewhere and they smile and wave, or tell me what a good teacher I was. I taught here so long, it happens fairly regularly.

My advice to you… Get your PhD, and get enough graduate credit to enable you to teach two or three subjects. 18 hours of credit is what is required here in Texas. After I did that my earnings potential doubled every year for several years. If you don’t want to go there and you think you’re going to stay as an Adjunct, go ahead and get the college hours anyway. As I said before, in three or four years I went from teaching my one subject and making about $22,000 a year to teaching two subjects for

three colleges and making $70,000 or more, as an adjunct.

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22 thoughts on “How to Make a Living as an Adjunct: Teach 35 Classes

  1. I just put this up on Reddit.

    This kills me. In this country we need nothing as much as education. Everyone needs more education. Meanwhile, we have educators such as yourself not doing what you should be doing: teaching. You are qualified, willing to teach for a decent salary, and are not helping to raise the education level of the nation.

    It’s a crying shame. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but it is mind boggling. In Columbia County NY where I live we have 21 highway departments for a population of 60,000 and in a county where we have billions for stimulus road projects in a hurry, let alone defense spending, we can’t figure out how to put the adults who need education (almost everyone) together with the pool of people who know how to teach adults, like you.


  2. Thanks. I feel the same way, but that doesn’t seem to be the way the world works.

    To clear up an issue with the post, having just reread it. It was almost 2 years (not 3) that I enjoyed my full-time position. Oct. 2008 to Sep. 2010.

    Also, lets clear up the time line. I started working for CTC in March of 1990, teaching on deployed Naval vessels. It’s called the Program for Afloat College Education, or PACE program. I was a PACE Instructor until Dec. of 1994. In Jan. of 1995 I started teaching classes here in Killeen, on the Ft. Hood campus. I trudged along, making very little money, until I went back to school in 1997 and got those 18 hours. When I went back to work for CTC in 1998, my income began to shoot up. I made an extra ten grand a year for the next several years. You’ll never hear a better example of the value of going to college. The money I spent getting those 18 hours paid for itself over and over. By 2003 I was making over $70,000 a year. I was teaching at least 25 classes a year on Ft. Hood, plus 4 more for Temple College, plus another 4 to 6 a year for Tarleton, plus the online classes I taught for CTC. I was a teaching machine. Having said that, I was leaving the house before 7AM and getting home around 10PM Monday through Thursday. I had no life, but I was making a good living.

  3. There is something almost frontier-like about your story Jeff (or maybe un-lemming-like). The unfairness and your consequent frustration is obvious, but so is your lack of professional/social contamination. From our first encounter I’ve admired your intellect and respected your thoughts – both influenced by the adversity you describe. Would a utopian freeway to professional success have blemished or stunted the quality of your very fine mind? Who knows for sure, but I do know that sleeping with either the enemy or idiots never turns out all that well. In the end you’ve positively impacted a huge group of students, and although at great personal expense, I know they are grateful and you should feel proud and successful.

  4. Retired U. professor, ex-campus president, can teach English/American Lit.; English as a Foreign Language: Administrative experience.

  5. The Maricopa County Community College District restricts the number of three-credit an adjunct can teach to seven a year — that would be 3+3+1. Arizona State University limits adjunct teaching loads to 2+2. And they ride herd electronically. A chair is not allowed to hire you for more than that many courses. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could possibly do justice to 35 courses…you don’t mean 35 credits, do you?

    What courses were you teaching? I suppose if they weren’t writing-intensive, you could do it, but that many horrid freshman comp courses? Unimaginable! Just one required paper for the MCCCD Eng. 102 course is 2500 words: that’s 50,000 words of student drivel PER SECTION, not counting the other two 750-word papers required for that course. So if you were teaching three sections you would have to read, comment upon, assess, and grade 150,000 words on deadline at the end of the semester.

    If you were teaching 35 classes a year, then you would presumably be teaching 17 or 18 sections a semester. How would you be able to grade that many papers? Or were you just giving them electronically graded true-false-multiple guess exams? If so…did you feel any ethical qualms at all about the quality of teaching that would come out of an arrangement like that?

    • They have similar rules at CTC. 9 classes a year, 20 for ECAF instructors. But the rules are ignored. Teach 20 a yaer for one campus on base (Ft. Hood), teach a dozen more AP classes at a local high school for another dean, etc. One hand doesn’t want to know what the other is doing because they all want/need their classes taught.

    • Also, these are 8 week semesters. 5 semesters a year on base. 6 to 8 classes a semester, plus a few more for another college. I started out teaching two a semester, and maybe 3 if I was lucky. AP classes were 16 weeks long. 6 of those a year.

      • Ah! That’s a lot more feasible, in its grotesque way. When I shared a link to the article with my associate editor, who teaches adjunct at the University of Phoenix and Maricopa County’s fully online Rio Salado Community College, she remarked that she was teaching just about that many sections.

        No wonder she’s sick with exhaustion. She also holds down a full-time editorial job and waits tables several nights a week.

  6. Melete said what I want to say. How can you possibly “teach” 35 classes per year? That cannot be done at any respectable level of quality unless there is something important we aren’t hearing – like small sections of, say, five students per class or people to help you grade (for an adjunct – yeah right!).

    • Exactly. I think that’s pretty much the point. It’s almost impossible to make a real living as an adjunct and still manage to give each student the necessary attention.

    • I was teaching four separate courses, Hist 1301 and 2, and Govt 2301 and 2. I’ve taught these courses so many times, particularly the history, I no longer need notes. I stand up there and lecture for two hours, answering questions when asked, and the students wonder how the hell anyone could remember all that stuff without notes. It’s just experience. I doubt I could have done it right out of school. I didn’t know enough. But after 20 years, it’s easy.

  7. Hello Jeff,

    An adjunct from the Hill Country that just received the first contract from CTC. If you do not mind I would like to chat with you about continuing on with CTC or just sticking with online. The students have been great the first couple of weeks but the science labs are void of chemicals and specimens. Akin to teaching a wood shop course without wood. I am sensing that this will not change. Am I correct? Please email if you get a chance:

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  9. I am just about to start a teaching career. I will be teaching paralegal courses at a community college. I don’t have a masters but I have a J.D. I was shocked to learn what the pay is per course ($1200). I may take your advice and get 18 graduate credits in another discipline. Do community/junior colleges care about where you received your graduate credits? I don’t want to spend tens of thousands of dollars to get 18 credits from a well known school in order to teach a few extra courses a year. Would 18 credits from an online school be looked down upon?

    • @PS

      It will probably cost you more to attend an online college, especially the private ones. You may be better off doing a state university, many of them have online courses.

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  14. Thanks for this post, Jeff. I’m considering transitioning from the corporate world into the teaching world and have several masters degrees (long story). I’m interested in teaching several classes at a local high school and then teaching classes at a local community college. My question is – don’t high school teachers also have responsibilities like bus duty, lunch duty, hall duty, tutorial hours, faculty meetings, etc.? How did you find the time to do all of the non-teaching/administrative teacher duties while also having time to teach at the state prison and college?

  15. I have served as an Adjunct Instructor for 18 years now. It is a fantastic PT job, which allowed me to spend more time with my kids and help pay the bills. However, now that the eldest heads to college, I noticed the full time options are quite limited. I’m unsure what my next steps will be.

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