On the financial perils of adjunct teaching

Jaclyn Berg | Guest Writer

I was almost evicted over winter break. This is my first year no longer on Ph.D. stipend, which means I now make less per year for the same amount of teaching. I knew I’d make less each check, but I was left in shock at the end of December when my expected paycheck never deposited, nor the one expected two weeks later.

It turns out it’s common practice for adjuncts to not be paid over breaks, but this was news to me. I was in a panic. I already get paid so little that I qualify for food assistance to feed my kids. But how would I pay rent? Heat and electricity? Phone and internet? Transportation?

If I’d known I wouldn’t be paid, I’d have gone to work at my second job like I do over the summer instead of preparing course material for the next semester. Or doing the necessary research to complete my dissertation. Or finally spending time with my kids.

While many grad workers and adjuncts still aren’t paid enough for the vital work they do at universities and colleges across the U.S., some universities have at least been trying to ease the increased financial burden caused by the pandemic by raising stipends and adjunct pay.

Those universities recognize that, if grad students are going to complete their degrees in the expected time frame, secure publications, attend conferences and obtain a position that reflects well on their university, grad workers need financial stability and time to work on their research.

Unfortunately, Duquesne doesn’t seem to find such measures necessary, given the last stipend increase occurred in 2017. In rental costs alone, from 2017-2023 there was a 78% average increase across all types of rental units, according to HUD User.

In addition, our five-year stipend of $18,000 is on the low end in comparison to similar Ph.D. program stipends from Emory University, Fordham University, Loyola University, DePaul University, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt University which range from around $17,000 (being the lowest) to over $30,000 per year according to their respective websites.

Other Ph.D.s also tend to teach less or have a funded year of research, allowing them crucial time to complete their dissertation, thus giving them a serious competitive advantage over Duquesne’s Ph.D.s.

Once the stipend ends, we become adjuncts, as I am now. Being paid even less for the same amount of work is disheartening, to say the least.

For context, the cost per credit at Duquesne is $1,562 according to the university’s website. So, one three-credit course costs $4,686 per student. I teach around 25 students per course, and two courses each semester. That totals about $468,600 that students pay to Duquesne JUST for the courses I teach for one academic year. That doesn’t include fees, on-campus living, books, or other courses.

My pay as an adjunct teaching those four courses is $16,800 before taxes. That’s a difference of $451,800 that students are paying for a course that’s not going to the person teaching the course, creating the curriculum, grading assignments and meeting with students.

When you consider this in addition to the fact that many of the courses at Duquesne are taught by adjuncts or grad workers, according to my personal observations, it makes you question what students (or their families) are paying for. I certainly don’t expect instructors/adjuncts to be paid the full amount collected in tuition for the course. I understand others are involved in maintaining various aspects of the university. But I also know that students pay that amount for every course they take, in addition to technology, housing, food and other administrative fees.

I love teaching. Engaging with students in the classroom and reading what they have to say is inspiring. They’re the reason I’ve pushed forward in my Ph.D. when everything else made me want to give up.

The students I’ve had the joy of teaching are also the reason I believe a brighter future is possible. When I decided to pursue graduate school, I never imagined I would love teaching as much as I do, but now I know this is what I was meant to do.

No amount of love for my students or enjoyment of teaching can make a difference in the stresses of financial instability.

Discovering I wasn’t being paid over the break caused me and my family serious financial struggles that will take months to recover from. If I had known in advance, I would have once again set aside everything I should be doing to finish my degree to go work another job.

The financial precarity of being a grad student at Duquesne has caused me to struggle with intense anxiety and severe depression since I came here in 2018. Now, I also constantly vacillate between anger and despair, wondering how it can be that I did everything right, am highly educated and incredibly hard working and still get paid less than I did at the nursing home where I worked before going to college.

Duquesne should realize that when teachers are paid well, the whole university benefits, and is thus better able to fulfill its mission of serving God by serving students.

This article was written by guest writer Jaclyn Berg, an adjunct professor and Ph.D. student at Duquesne University.