Coffee heat rising

The Opportunity Cost of Adjunct Teaching

I just sat down and figured out the opportunity cost of teaching two sections of freshman comp, based on the $60 hourly rate we now know businesses will pay me and my sidekick, a figure we believe to be somewhat below market.

Hang onto your hats, folks…

If I teach two sections of composition—just two!—instead of billing the same number of hours for editorial work, it costs me $11,059 per 16-week semester in lost income.

That’s right. The privilege of earning $4800 in pursuit of your children’s higher education actually impoverishes me by more than 11 grand. In one semester.

Here’s a conservative calculation showing that to be true. Bear in mind that it doesn’t include commute time to campus (that would be six hours a week this semester) or the unpaid time we are asked to donate to departmental meetings and faculty development workshops.

Translation: I spend 96 hours in the classroom during a typical semester with two face-to-face three-credit sessions. My graders billed me $1,311 for plowing through the spring semester’s composition papers; at $10/hour, that suggests it takes 131 hours to read and assess a semester’s worth of postadolescent writing. Course prep for those two sections took me four full days this fall. Assuming I only worked eight hours each of those days (a very modest assumption!), that comes to 32 hours of prep time and website management. Thus the total number of hours consumed by two sections over a 16-week semester is 259. I’m paid $4,800 for all that labor, which, when divided by the number of hours required, works out to $18.53 an hour.

Not great, but not so very bad (as long as you don’t figure in the required and expected freebies).

Except…if I spent that many hours working at my editorial rate of $60 per hour (which, as it develops, is a little low), I would earn $15,540 during those 16 weeks.

Subtract the amount I actually earn, $4,800, from the real value of my time, and you get the opportunity cost: $11,059.

That is more than I’d need to earn all year—in 52 weeks!—to get by without teaching any comp courses.

Reality check! Could I actually do that much editorial work in 16 weeks? Let’s see…

Sixteen hours and eleven minutes a week? Somehow I think I can struggle through it.

If you’ll recall, though, yesterday I figured The Copyeditor’s Desk would need to earn only about $6,000 for me to get by just fine in 2013. Fifteen thousand five hundred and forty bucks is 2.6 times what I absolutely have to earn to pay the bills. So let’s prorate those hours over, say, 50 weeks—give me a two-week vacation, why not? This scenario would have me billing all of five hours and 10 minutes a week to earn enough to live rather comfortably, what with Social Security and a tiny drawdown from savings. Or actually, no drawdown: because Social Security covers almost half my expenses, an income of $15,540 would mean I wouldn’t have to raid retirement savings to live.

Think of that.


11 thoughts on “The Opportunity Cost of Adjunct Teaching”

  1. I’m not sure about your numbers. You include in the time, the time you pay your graders for–aren’t you making money on their time?

    From your chart, you seem to be farming out all your grading (????). Doesn’t that work as a profit for you?

    • @ frugal scholar: I suppose you could look at it that way. But the way I see it, I’m spending about half the gross revenue from one course to hire these people to do minimum-wage work that absolutely gags me when I have to do it. Basically what they do is make it possible for me to tolerate the job enough to collect the tiny amount of money I’m paid. You could say there’s a sort of opportunity profit in that while I’m not grading papers I could be hustling business or editing copy (which in fact is true). But overall the whole project is such a distraction that IMHO it keeps me from marketing the business effectively and doing the editorial work efficiently.

  2. I’m actually impressed that your hourly wages as an adjunct come out to be that high! I have friends who adjunct and I swear between prep-work and grading and the too many office hours and hours on email they get paid about minimum wage. =(

    • @ Mrs. PoP: I have no office hours because I have no office. No private place for meeting with students is provided. The college provides no phone for adjuncts, either, and we are strongly discouraged from giving our own numbers to students, for obvious reasons.

      Young students now tend to prefer texting to e-mail; often they will not even go to their email accounts for days or weeks at a time. This, mercifully, cuts down on the email correspondence.

      And as for course prep: to say it took only 32 hours this semester is to understate. But I’ve done it so many times now that I do have it down to an art. Rewriting a 20-page syllabus and renovating an entire website with posts scheduled over a 16-week period is no joke (especially when multiplied by three: Eng. 101, Eng. 102, and Eng. 235), but the foundation and framing are there and so I never have to start over from scratch.

  3. WOW, that’s crazy. Seems like focusing on the editorial work instead of the freshman comp works is the right choice. I mean, either way you do make money, but you make so much more editing. The only thing is to make sure you have enough clients/work so that you can actually edit that much. But even if you can’t, even if you can only edit a fraction of that time…dude, you’ll still be doing really well!

    • @ TB: Yup. Right now we have enough work in house to make this scheme work. The trick will be to keep it coming in.

      The economy is getting better. And I’ve been learning, at a fantastic pace, how to develop and market a small business. I’m sure no expert, but to earn the very small amount actually needed to get by will not require a Donald Trump.

  4. You have certainly inundated us with calculations on this possible change in your life.

    We’ll be disappointed if there is no follow through.

  5. @ E. Murphy: Me, too! I just came up with a good, tactful way to tell the boss I’m quitting. (Must resist the “take this job and shove it” approach!)

    Discussed with the financial manager: he thinks my figures are good and there’s no reason this shouldn’t work.

  6. funny,
    I have witnessed first hand how a person’s life can change for the better when they are happy with their job. It does appear that it is time for you to make the leap! Many believe that the universe will conspire to help you in amazing ways when you really, really want something. Go for it!

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