Do colleges exploit their professors?

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(MoneyWatch) While teenagers and parents who visit college campuses understandably ask many of the same questions, there is one that schools never get asked: How well are you treating your professors?

It's an excellent question because in fact many college teacher are treated shabbily. Some make such paltry salaries that they qualify for food stamps. The Des Moines Register recently examined pay of state employees and discovered that adjunct professors represented two of the five lowest paid jobs in Iowa. The other lowest-paid occupations were laborers, parking lot attendants and food workers.

Unlike full-time staff professors, many adjunct professors are part-timers and typically do not enjoy job security or workplace benefits. Their job situation is starkly different thantenured professors, who enjoy lifetime job security, health care, pensions and often light teaching loads with plenty of time for research. 

The number of adjunct professors in the U.S. has been climbing. Today roughly 70 percent of college professors are not "tenure track." Their presence is more common at regional state schools and at mid-tier private universities. (You can learn more about their plight at the website of New Faculty Majority, which aims to improve conditions for these professors.)

Why should students care if a highly educated teacher is working for peanuts? The grim working conditions can impact the quality of education that students receive. For instance, adjuncts often lack offices where they can meet with students, and they may be difficult to see outside of class because many often also teach at a different campus or school.

Adjuncts also can be tempted to make classes easier because poor student evaluations can jeopardize their chances of getting another teaching contract. These vulnerable teachers may also censor themselves in class for fear of saying anything that might offend students. This can limit students' chances of engaging in meaningful discussions.

Students should look for schools that do a better job of hiring professors who are on the tenure track. You can find the breakdown of tenure-tenure track versus adjunct professors at any institution by using an extremely helpful search tool at the Modern Language Association.