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In many ways, Anne Winkler-Morey loves being a professor. It’s the job she always wanted, teaching history at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn. Except for one thing. She has no benefits, no job security or even a desk to call her own. This year, she says, she’ll earn just $17,000.

It’s a far cry from the academic career she dreamed of while earning her doctorate at the University of Minnesota. She’s discovered the hard way that faculty jobs with a steady paycheck and a modicum of dignity are a shrinking minority in college classrooms.

For the first time, half of all college instructors are like Winkler-Morey: part-time adjunct professors who, critics say, are often trapped in a cycle of jobs that barely pay the rent.

“I spent 12 years training for this,” said Winkler-Morey, 55, of Minneapolis, who started teaching 20 years ago. “I was making more on unemployment than I am now.”

Now, adjuncts across the country are starting to join forces to demand better treatment.

“There’s a perception that college faculty have the easiest jobs and are very well paid,” said Maria Maisto, founder of the New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy group for adjuncts. “People are generally shocked, I think, when they discover what the conditions are.”

As an adjunct, Winkler-Morey says she has no problem getting teaching offers, but they’re almost always part time, temporary and a fraction of the pay that staff instructors get for the same classes.

It is, administrators admit, one way they’ve tried to fill gaps in the teaching ranks without locking themselves into long-term commitments.

“Yeah, it is a way to save money; I don’t see any way to get around that,” said Mike Reynolds, associate provost at Hamline University in St. Paul, where adjuncts now outnumber full-time professors.

For those on the front lines, the trend has been demoralizing.

“You certainly don’t go into becoming a professor thinking you’re going to be making poverty wages,” said SooJin Pate, who has a Ph.D. in American studies and made $15,000 last year as an adjunct at Macalester College in St. Paul.

Surveys show that adjunct professors make $18,000 to $30,000 for the equivalent of full-time work; compared to “tenure track” professors who earn $68,000 to $116,000 (plus benefits), according to the American Association of University Professors.

Meanwhile, the percentage of professors in those coveted tenure jobs has been steadily dropping: only 3 in 10 today, down from 6 in 10 in the 1970s.

In the past few months, frustrations over the plight of adjuncts have boiled over in congressional hearings, online petitions (Better Pay for Adjuncts) and a two-day walkout at the University of Illinois-Chicago in February.

In January, Adjunct Action, an offshoot of the Service Employees International Union, started contacting thousands of adjunct instructors in Minnesota’s Twin Cities to gauge interest in forming a union. In February, Winkler-Morey launched a group on Facebook called United Minnesota Adjunct Professors, inviting adjuncts to share their concerns “so we can move toward a list of demands.”

The concern goes beyond self-interest, activists say. They argue that the growing reliance on academic temp workers is shortchanging students.

“Adjunct faculty are running out the door because they have to teach as many classes as they can to make a living,” said Maisto. That leaves little time for students who may need extra help.

“It’s very hard to be a mentor,” said Winkler-Morey. “They need people with office hours. They need people who can give them letters of recommendation. … That’s not there with people who are in the equivalent of temp jobs. You can’t give that kind of attention, (though) we try like crazy.”

Typically, adjuncts are paid by the class – an average of $2,700 for a typical three-credit course, according to a 2012 survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce. There’s no extra pay for prep time, grading papers or student conferences.

Maisto, of the New Faculty Majority, is often asked why highly educated professionals would settle for adjunct work. “It’s ‘foot-in-door’ disease,” she said. “People really believe that if they get their foot in the door by working as an adjunct for a while, they’ll be able to prove themselves.”

Maisto, an adjunct herself in Ohio, said that was once true, but the landscape changed. In the past, she said, adjuncts were mainly people with jobs in other fields, who would moonlight teaching a class. But over time, she said, colleges discovered that they were a cheap way to fill teaching slots; and by limiting instructors to one or two classes, they could save on benefits. “(I) liken it to an addiction,” she said. “It grew and grew, and all of a sudden, it’s completely out of control and we’re the majority of the faculty.” A 2011 government study found that part-timers outnumbered tenure-track instructors by 762,000 to 445,000.

“I really am incredibly sympathetic,” said Reynolds, the associate provost who was once an adjunct himself. “There are many adjuncts who are quite exceptional teachers,” he added. “If there weren’t a surplus of labor, you couldn’t pay so weakly for it.”

Yet he predicts it will be difficult to change course. With colleges under pressure to restrain costs, “trying to improve the conditions for part-time employees is not going to be at the top of the list.”