MIAMI — Kim Laffont worked three jobs and spent 3 hours a day commuting last semester.
Though her students call her professor, Laffont is an adjunct professor — and that one word makes all the difference. Her title may sound prestigious, but many of Laffont’s colleagues could earn almost the same money by donning a fast-food uniform.
The reality of being an adjunct professor does not come with a wood-paneled office, much less a full-time schedule. Laffont and fellow adjuncts at Broward College and Miami Dade College work without benefits like paid health insurance. Some buy groceries with food stamps or live with their parents to make ends meet.
Adjuncts make up a growing part of the academic workforce — in South Florida and nationally — and they are starting to fight for better pay, benefits and schedules.
In response to protests from adjuncts, the Broward College Board of Trustees recently approved a pay increase of $100 per course and agreed to other measures, including the formation of an adjunct faculty committee.
For adjuncts, it was a first sign of respect, but not much of a raise. The 5 percent increase will translate into a $6.25 raise per week.
Laffont, who has taught at eight South Florida institutions, including Broward and Miami Dade colleges, says she loves teaching college students but can’t make a decent living doing it.
“The question I ask myself almost daily is, ‘Can I survive doing this?’” Laffont said. “It’s not that I want to leave. I really want to stay. It’s just — can I afford to teach?”
Earlier this year, Laffont founded the South Florida Part-Time Faculty Association, an organization that advocates for adjuncts. The concerns: Low pay; no job security or benefits; little opportunity to advance; scattered schedules that force commutes from school to school, earning adjuncts the label of “freeway fliers.”
While adjunct positions are often billed as a track to a full-time teaching or as a side job for outside professionals, they are increasingly the only professorial jobs available.
At Broward College and Miami Dade College, former community colleges, almost half of the classes are taught by adjuncts. Many students and parents paying high tuition rates may not know it, but the ratio is common nationwide, particularly at community colleges.
Adjunct professors made up just 20 percent of the higher education faculty ranks in 1970, when the position was typically a side job for working professionals and retirees, according to a January 2014 report by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Now, they are half, and much of the growth in employment of post-secondary teachers from 2012 to 2022 is expected to be in adjunct positions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The tenure-track college professor with a stable salary, firmly grounded in the middle or upper-middle class, is becoming rare,” the House report stated.
Pay per class varies by college, subject and semester, but several South Florida adjuncts interviewed made between $1,925 and $3,000 per class, before taxes.
Full-time professors get first pick of classes, and adjunct assignments can be canceled at the last minute if they are below enrollment or given to a full-time professor. The number of classes adjuncts teach per semester can vary widely. Laffont says she typically teaches eight classes a semester, juggling schedules at several schools.
Laffont, an English professor, calls her existence “precarious” even though she strings together enough classes to fill a full-time schedule. Working a “insane” load of eight classes a semester — far more than the five taught by a full-time professor — as well as summer term classes, her annual salary is still less than that of a salaried professor. At Broward College, salaries for full-time professors with master’s degrees begin at about $37,000.
Other long-time adjuncts echo her concerns.
Rod Appleton, a professor of graphic design who is also a member of the South Florida Part-Time Faculty Association, said the most he has ever earned in a year is $20,500, and he hasn’t done that well in years.
For cash-strapped colleges, adjuncts can help balance the budget. The colleges can hire two or three adjuncts for the price of a full-time, tenure-track professor.
At a Broward College trustees meeting last week, Provost Linda Howdyshell acknowledged the growing numbers of adjuncts filling classrooms, but said that the state-funded college could not afford to increase the percentage of classes taught by full-time faculty members.
Critics of adjunct professors argue they have no obligation to stay in their field — they could take up a more stable and lucrative profession. And colleges have never claimed that an adjunct’s pay is supposed to be a living wage.
But they do often pitch the job as a path to a full-time post. A statement on the Miami Dade College website reads: “Whether on track to become a full-time faculty member, or teaching out of the love of sharing their expertise, joining Miami Dade College is one of the greatest steps to take in your career.”
MDC spokesman Juan Mendieta said Miami Dade is one of the highest-paying colleges for adjunct professors in Florida.
“We value our adjunct faculty tremendously. Many are professionals in their field, provide our students real-world experience and are a great complement to our full-time faculty,” Mendieta said.
But three long-time adjuncts who have taught at several colleges in both counties said they are not being fairly compensated for the value they bring to the classroom.
Appleton, who has taught graphic design, photography and art appreciation at Broward College for 10 years, says this year will be the first in which he will receive a wage increase. In the past decade, he said, he has had to draw on savings to make ends meet.
Job security is another issue. After a decade as an adjunct at Broward, Evan Rowe found himself on unemployment compensation this summer when his classes were canceled at the last minute.
Even when he does work, he said it is tough to make ends meet.
“I can barely pay rent, food, the normal social functions people do — buy a house, summer vacations. Dating is very difficult,” he said. “Being poor is all-encompassing.”
Rowe, who teaches politics, history and government classes with what he describes as a “power politics approach,” says he should have realized earlier that power was something adjuncts lacked.
“You’d think I would have been more cynical,” he said.