Mary Ellen Goodwin is 66 years old, but she isn’t prepared to retire, yet.
Goodwin, an adjunct professor who teaches English as a second language at De Anza College, in California, says she simply can’t afford it.
With smaller paychecks and a lack of job security, adjunct faculty members face a host of difficulties planning for retirement. The first challenge for many instructors is figuring out whether they will be able to retire at all. By the time they reach age 65, many adjuncts find it isn’t even an option.
Goodwin said she had been thinking of retirement for some time, after a lifetime of financial struggles. She worked at an insurance company for 10 years before earning her bachelor’s degree and deciding to teach. She put herself through undergraduate and graduate classes, taking out student loans. She taught in multiple districts of her community college to cobble together a full-time salary, but eventually declared bankruptcy after paying for an emergency surgery without health insurance, she said.
Now, “I finally got to the point where I can breathe; I don’t have any debt. This is wonderful,” Goodwin said. “And then I looked at my birth certificate, and I’m 65 years old.”
Goodwin works on only one campus now, in addition to working as an associate secretary at her local union, the Foothill-De Anza Faculty Association. She isn’t teaching this quarter because her course didn’t reach the enrollment minimum, which she said is a loss of income equating to several thousand dollars for the 12-week session.
Goodwin said that in her situation, especially without a spouse’s income, retiring will be difficult. When she does research, unsure where to start, she Googles phrases like “single woman retirement” and feels discouraged. It keeps her up at night.
Many adjunct faculty members face similar dilemmas, and have for years. In 2013, the death of an 83-year-old former adjunct at Duquesne University created a sweeping outcry across the nation after a column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed that even after working for decades, Margaret Mary Vojtko was unable to pay for electricity or medical care.
Caprice Lawless, an adjunct instructor of English at Front Range Community College and second vice president of the American Association of University Professors, sees it all the time. Lawless is an advocate for adjunct faculty in Colorado. She helps connect adjuncts to contacts in state agencies, to apply for food stamps and unemployment, to look for subsidized housing; and sometimes, to navigate the retirement process.
But for most, Lawless said, the working conditions are so challenging that it is almost impossible to think about the future. Lawless said she doesn’t know of a single adjunct faculty member who has been able to retire. They just keep teaching, she said, trying to remain devoted to students and ignoring the problem at hand. Lawless said adjuncts put on “blinders.”
“You’re just hanging on for dear life,” she said. “Retirement is some far-off thing you can’t even think about.”
In today’s economic environment, a fully funded retirement may be out of reach for people in all kinds of jobs. But for adjuncts, the difficulties begin within a faulty system, Lawless said. Because wages are often below the cost of living, she said, adjuncts are obliged to work other places. Working for two employers can prevent instructors from earning a full pension because of federal laws that prevent a person from collecting two retirement funds.
Lawless said that in Colorado, the restrictions result in a two-thirds deduction from her state retirement fund each month. That will eventually mean about $700 less in her pension check.
Many adjunct professors want to become full-time or tenure-track faculty later in their careers but have found advancing increasingly difficult, and the plan makes for bleak retirement prospects.
When Brian McNeil, a 67-year-old senior affiliated faculty member of visual and media arts, began working at Emerson College, he felt fairly confident about his future. With two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree, more than 10 years of teaching experience at two colleges in Canada, and professional photography experience, he thought of his adjunct position as a way to secure tenure in the future.
Instead, he traded his teaching job in Canada — where as an adjunct he had pensions provided by both his college and the government — for 20 years of living “term to term” in Boston. He said he went seven years without health care.
“It’s a kind of academic apartheid,” McNeil said. “These adjuncts are just kept going and going and going and they’re paid not even a living wage.”
McNeil considers himself lucky: His wife is a psychotherapist who saved for retirement, he has some savings, and he is in good-enough shape to work for another 10 to 15 years, he said. He hasn’t even considered retiring.
“I guess I would just teach until I just couldn’t teach any more,” he said. “I myself haven’t really thought about it, because it would mean just living off of Social Security.”
Goodwin said she hopes to retire in about two years, but even then, she isn’t sure how long her savings will last. As she gets older, she said, there are many “unknowns” to plan for, like unexpected health issues or family obligations.
With such little security, Lawless said, some faculty members end up leaving academe altogether. But others, like Goodwin, stick around in spite of the challenges. For Goodwin, the only motivating factor is a passion for public education and the belief that it is a “public good.”
“If teaching is that important to you, then you have to make it work,” Goodwin said. “My choice was to stay and change the culture, rather than be angry.”
Picture on our website by By Carmen Maria Machado