Economics, Social Justice

Estimating the Cost of Adjunct Justice: A Case Study in University Business Ethics

Phil Magness and I now have a paper with that title forthcoming in The Journal of Business Ethics. It’s not as prestigious as a Storify piece, but for some reason publishing in JBE helps our universities’ Forbes rankings and Storify does not.


American universities rely upon a large workforce of adjunct faculty—contract workers who receive low pay, no benefits, and no job security. Many news sources, magazines, and activists claim that adjuncts are exploited and should receive better pay and treatment. This paper never affirms nor denies that adjuncts are exploited. Instead, we show that any attempt to provide a significantly better deal faces unpleasant constraints and trade-offs. “Adjunct justice” would cost universities somewhere between an additional $15-50 billion per year. At most, universities can provide justice for a minority of adjuncts at the expense of the majority, as well as at the expense of poor students. Universities may indeed be exploiting adjuncts, but they cannot rectify this mistake without significant moral costs.

In the paper, we use Department of Education data and other sources to estimate just what the costs and opportunity costs of implementing various proposals for adjunct justice would be. Based on DoE data and data from the Coalition for the Academic Workforce, we estimate there are about 1.5 million classes taught by adjuncts each year. We can then calculate what it would cost to have those courses taught by higher paid full-time workers. We define a “minimally good job” as a long-term, non-tenure-track job, with a 3-3 load, no research expectations, voting rights, a small research budget, and $50K+ benefits remuneration. We also look at other more generous and thus more costly proposals.

Adjunct justice
These are actually low estimates, because we make heroic assumptions about substituting individual full-time workers for adjuncts working in multiple disciplines. In the paper, we note that universities spend about $100 million billion [correction] a year on faculty salaries (based on DoE data), so these proposals (which are quite modest) represent 15-50% budget increases to start.

That money has to come from somewhere. Money spent on “adjunct justice” is not money spent on other things.

Thus, there are hidden trade-offs. For instance:

1. Instead of spending money helping adjuncts, universities could reduce tuition or provide scholarships for poor undergraduates. There’s a pretty strong case that this is a priority over helping adjuncts from the standpoint of social justice. Even if you think adjuncts are wrongly exploited, it’s not obvious that in the face of budget constraints we should help them first.

2. We discuss how these proposals will likely lead to reduced teaching quality in certain fields, because many experienced professionals who teach on the side will end up losing their jobs in favor of the “professional adjuncts”. We don’t know what the overall effect on teaching quality will be.

3. Implementing any of the proposals we’ve seen increases the pay and prestige of these jobs. But as pay rises, it is likely that higher skilled or better qualified people will end up receiving those jobs. We might call this the problem of “job gentrification”. Higher quality applicants will compete for those jobs. Many current adjuncts have marginal qualifications and will end up losing their jobs altogether. If we care about helping the current batch of adjuncts, it does not follow a priori that raising adjunct pay (or replacing adjunct positions with better positions) will actually help them. It will help the people who get these better jobs, but many of them will be different people from the people who currently work as adjuncts.

4. Finally, it’s not plausible that universities can give all current adjuncts full-time minimally good jobs. At most, universities could give a minority of current adjuncts minimally good jobs, but then have to fire the rest. Based on DoE and other data, we determine that to substitute minimally good jobs to cover all the classes currently taught by adjuncts, universities would have to fire 2/3rds of all current adjuncts.

If we assume that current adjuncts are rational people, then we should presume that they prefer working as adjuncts (with all the downsides) to their other options, whatever those options may be.

Adjuncts might have unjust or unfair working conditions, but, nevertheless, they choose these working conditions over their other available alternatives. They prefer being adjuncts, with all the attendant awfulness, over being unemployed, getting training elsewhere, teaching high school, working in private industry, or whatnot. This means eliminating their current adjunct positions will deliver them a less preferred option, and in that sense harm them.

Just how severe the harm is depends on what adjuncts’ other options are. The fewer the options, or the worse the other options, the greater the harm done by eliminating their positions. Thus, suppose all current adjuncts have only two options: they can be unemployed or work as adjuncts for low pay. In that case, firing them would be devastating. If, however, most could quit and work in high paying professional jobs (e.g., at GEICO), firing them would not be so bad.

In the end, we see this paper as taking the first step toward serious work on questions of exploitation in academic employment. So far, most of the newspaper and magazine articles covering the issue write as if the only obstacles to “adjunct justice” are budgetary cuts, faculty indifference, and administrative greed. The issue is far more complex, and the obstacles more challenging.

  • JH

    Any chance that you can post a copy of the paper online?

  • Since the road to hell is paved with the skulls of university administrators, I’d be curious to hear your views of arguments for rebalancing resources away from administration and toward faculty.

    • Jason Brennan

      When we ask “where” to get the money (without raising tuition), that’s one of our top proposals, along with cutting sports teams.

      We cite Ginsberg’s *Fall of the Faculty* and argue there’s a good chance many administrators have net negative value.

      • If universities are spending $100 million a year on faculty salaries, any idea what it is for administration? I can of course look myself but if you happen to know offhand that would be helpful.

        • Jason Brennan

          I’ll see if I can get the exact number, but I do remember that the total amount spent on thing other than faculty salaries was about $377 billion.

          Also, I meant billion above. I’ll correct that.

          • Phil Magness

            Public Universities:

            Private Universities:

            Admin is spread across 3-4 categories based on institutional, student, and academic support. If you add them all together & exclude facilities as a non-administrative fixed cost, it tops $100 mil.

          • Phil Magness

            Should also clarify – the DOE reported instructional salaries (which only appear in a breakdown for public universities) don’t reflect the full compensation expenses of the university system. There are about 800,000 full time faculty in the US right now (meaning excluding any adjuncts), so unless they’re only being paid about $100 each, obviously their salaries + benefits are being reported across multiple lines of the university budget – not just the instructional compensation line DOE reports. I don’t have the exact numbers at hand right now but if we approximate and assume that the median full time faculty makes about 50K, then add in 25K worth of benefits, insurance, retirement etc. per full timer in the costs to the university, that’s in the 60 bil neighborhood right there. Add in adjuncts & a likely fat tail from premium faculty/endowed chairs etc. & you’re at about 100 bil.

    • King Goat

      As well as administrators, one of the things that’s been invoked by some commentators and politicians seems to contemplate something like a rebalancing of resources from faculty that do ‘more research than teaching’ to some of these lower paid instructors. Was that option covered?

  • jeffmoriarty

    A timely article! I look forward to reading it.

  • urstoff

    As a person who left a graduate program when realizing that I was very unlikely to get a job as a professor, I don’t have much sympathy for whining adjuncts. Sometimes you have to let the dream die.

    However, I still think higher education has a major instructional problem given that teaching quality is almost never a priority. No one is ever hired at a major school because they’re a good teacher (usually, they’re hired in spite of their being a terrible teacher). This is probably support for the signalling theory of education (no one, not even students, really care much about teacher quality), but it is still frustrating for someone like me who didn’t like sustained research but loved teaching at the university level.

  • My experience as an adjunct in engineering, is that it was an adjunct for my career as a full time engineer. I treated the low pay as an honorarium, and that I was donating my time as a gift to the university. Whenever BHL contributors talk about pay justice, they sidestep the issue like mentioned in this abstract. Perhaps that is because there is no such a thing as exploration or injustice in voluntary transactions.

  • Kevin Murtagh

    The paper sounds like an interesting and potentially valuable contribution, but your “update” undermines the otherwise professional tone by appending a condescending tantrum that suggests that you are at least as immature as the “madjuncts” you are criticizing. If you look at your own hypocritical approach, maybe some of the animosity in this debate will be more comprehensible to you.

    • Jason Brennan

      Perhaps. In light of their past behavior, I have very low expectations of the madjunct crowd, and expect them to respond to this paper by harassing the editors at the journal and the like. I am trying to forestall that by calling them out on it.

      But I will take your suggestion and remove it.

  • martinbrock

    Yesterday, a study reports the dwindling returns on higher ed for a rising number of students.

    Today, Jason reports that half a trillion a year doesn’t pay many academics well enough, according to them.

    Higher education is a credit financed bubble worse than the housing bubble. A housing bubble can inflate prices, but while technology is not about to eliminate the need for housing, brick and mortar education, as a real business proposition rather than a taxpayer subsidized and credit fueled vacation for 20-somethings, seems no more sustainable to me than brick and mortar bookstores.

    I understand why universities find all the adjuncts they want without paying them much, but the rest of the academy looks increasingly fattened by rent seeking, and the rent payers increasingly have a choice.

  • geoih

    Why on Earth would we assume that students should receive preferential treatment at the expense of adjuncts? Isn’t it a University’s function to provide an education product by balancing the factors of supply and demand in market competition? How does any of this have anything to do with ethics? Students don’t have a legitimate claim on the knowledge or teaching abilities of adjuncts.

    • Phil Magness

      It’s not something we should assume. But as long as there are tradeoffs, it is something we should ask about – should budgetary resources go to students, to adjuncts, or to something else entirely (perhaps the right course of action is to give the taxpayers a refund)?

      The larger point is this: the ethical claim that adjuncts are “owed” something is frequently assumed in the literature on adjuncting. Yet this claim is neither obvious nor particularly strong in its own right, especially when we confront the other tradeoffs of who else may be “owed” something.

      • Jason Brennan

        Another way to frame it is that if budget constraints prevent you from giving everyone everything they’re “owed”, then you have to ask whom to help *first*. It may be that even if adjuncts are mistreated then are a low priority when it comes to rectifying injustice. We don’t take a stance on that in this paper.

  • syed ali

    your argument here sounds very much like arguments against raising the minimum wage. but the minimum wage keeps getting raised (albeit not by that much, and very slowly over the years) without the sky falling. (it also sounds like the argument against raising TT faculty salary, too.) you say the cost of paying adjuncts better would be $50 b (let’s take the high end). but what is the context here? you say that would be a 15-50% increase in salary costs of faculty. but what is that relative to university budgets? at a big state school like, let’s say, university of alabama, would that be equivalent to the football coach’s salary?

    there’s not a direct correlation between paying adjuncts better and rising tuition. we know that payment to faculty has not kept up with tuition rises, so the difference is going elsewhere — capital projects, admin, sports. so your point 1 doesn’t work, because universities don’t cut tuition, they raise them, and that money doesn’t go to faculty of any status (for the most part). so i don’t think you’re right about the economics of it. (though maybe you elaborate that in the paper?) point 2 is hard to tell unless we know the breakdown of “professional” adjuncts who do it as a service versus career adjuncts for whom this is bread and butter. point 3 sounds pretty spot on. though point 4, universities probably could if they decided it was a priority the way universities see sports as a priority. remember a few years back when berkeley was furloughing staff and faculty? the athletic department was in a deep financial hole, but they made no move to tighten their belts. basically universities are more than happy to cut costs with faculty (adjuncts and TT) and lower level staff, cutting quality of services to the tuition paying units sorry i meant students. but they value high-end staff and men’s football and basketball, so they get lavished with all kinds of cash and benefits.

  • Cheated at state universities

    When people use soft words to cover crimes, they encourage social problems, so I’ll be direct. The reality is that the high-pay element in universities’ personnel (notably administrators) make the decision to pay adjuncts nearly nothing so that they can steal the money that the adjuncts actually earn. For example, my classes bring about $100,000 from tuition into the university each semester. State subvention approximately doubles that amount. I get paid 5% of the $200,000 that I bring into the university. I’m not advocating that we should be paid straight commission, because I think that our services are valuable in more ways than the money we generate. However, this figure shows that the upper-pay element has stolen our money. How many of the well-paid get 5% of the money they generate for the university? If any, I guess very few do. So, where do their extremely generous enrichments come from? Let’s be clear — The parasitic administrators steal the money earned by the people who do the essential work of the university, i.e., we conduct classes for the students.

    Some of you have expressed lack of “sympathy” for adjuncts. Sympathy would be a positive emotional reaction, but it is not necessary. Adjuncts’ earnings are stolen, and it is done for the same sleazy, tawdry reasons that all common stick-up men do it: e.g., Bernie Madoff, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the repulsive Martin Shkreli (I understand that Martin didn’t actually steal, but extortion of the dying is very similar). They want the money for themselves. It is okay to take the side of common thieves, but for those who are against crime, you do not want this going on in your/our society. If you want to consider the administrators’ theft of your own earnings “an honorarium,” it is your business. In order to do so, you obviously have a good income from elsewhere. Similarly, we should be aware that those who claim that adjuncts are merely “mad-juncts,” are being paid real money. Maybe it is essential to scorn the thieves’ victims in order to keep jobs and
    to be promoted.