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Perspective | The value of adjunct teachers

I am an adjunct mathematics teacher at two different higher education schools: a major state university and a large, well-respected community college.

Prior to this, I had a 30-year experience in industry as an engineer and manager with IBM. I have no axe to grind and am not an advocate of major changes to the present situation.

Most adjunct teachers are very satisfied with their teaching assignments — myself included. They are also very qualified to be in their positions. Most universities require this group of teachers to have at least 18 hours of advanced mathematics training. Most have master’s degrees. Many have doctorate degrees as well.

With this background in mind, let’s examine the role of adjunct teachers from three different points of view.

From the college point of view

Most colleges cannot afford to run their institutions without the help of adjunct teachers. It is not uncommon for 20% to 40% of a college’s mathematics classes to be taught by adjunct teachers. In 2017-18, 69% of community colleges’ faculty were part-time instructors.

If a university were not allowed to utilize adjunct teachers, the cost of many more full-time professors could lead to tuition increases.

The typical salary of an adjunct math teacher is extremely low compared to that of a college professor. An adjunct teacher often also receives no vacation, medical, or other benefits.

As an adjunct teacher, I am paid about $3,000 for a four-hour math class. A full-time professor often receives four to five times that amount, plus other benefits. This varies based on the university and the area, but the difference is often significant.

From the college point of view, this makes business sense and allows them a great deal of flexibility as course load and schedules may change each semester.

From the student and parent point of view

Students and parents want the best education possible. Are they getting what they pay for with a large percentage of teachers not being full-time professors?

Obviously the answer to this important question can be debated. Can a case be made to say that a professor with a doctorate can teach and reach students better than fully qualified adjunct teachers?

I am not attempting to answer this with any more authority other than my 20 years of experience as an adjunct math teacher would allow. I bring as much knowledge about my subject as a full-time professor. I am very enthusiastic about teaching and have not reached burnout. I am not and will not be tenured, nor is it a goal of my career. I can be released without any fuss, as my contract gets renewed on a per-semester basis. The institution measures my performance through random audits and opinion surveys from each semester and in each class.

I also bring 30 years of industry knowledge to blend into the class. Adjunct teachers can present ideas from the real world, which most students will enter after their college career is over.

I’ve been able to help students with questions about specific job descriptions and how their education can help them gain a foothold during the interview process. I’ve provided insight on pay scales, how salary increases are determined, and the appraisal process used by many companies when determining employees’ career progress and goals.

From the adjunct teacher point of view

Most members of the adjunct faculty are very excited to be teaching in the university environment. Most, if not all, have experience in the workplace and not just academia.

My experience has been that the adjunct staff is considered an important part of the overall teaching staff. We take part in planning and course preparation, and our advice and opinions are accepted by the full-time teaching faculty.

Standing back and viewing this question from the three different directions, it appears to be a win for all parties involved. I would not argue if the pay per-course were higher and some meager benefits were made available, but I have not written this to push for specific changes — rather, just to state the facts as I see them. Adjunct teachers are an important part of our ecosystem.

Stuart Cooper

Stuart Cooper is a math instructor at Central Piedmont Community College and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.