Why are college professors paid more and considered more prestigious than secondary school teachers when they don't have to get a license and many of them have no background in education?

Also, a lot of colleges rely on adjuncts and visiting lecturers who may not even be that prominent in their field and yet it seems like a lot of undergrads would rather teach anywhere on the college level than on the secondary or elementary levels.


Lisa Hiton, Poet, Professor, Filmmaker, Writer, Arts Educator

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As a perpetual adjunct myself, I would say that the claim above is quite untrue. There are a few prestigious universities that pay a few high profile faculty members "a lot". On average, a faculty member with tenure on a college campus makes about $75,000 per year. Many public high school teachers average about the same per year. Also remember that college professors do not get pensions with their tenure.

To be sure, nearly 3/4 of all college professors are CONTINGENT FACULTY. To give you an idea, your average adjunct makes about $3,500 per COURSE (that's for a 3 or 4 credit class). No benefits. No tenure. No pension. So for those of us with terminal degrees who desire a life of research, publication, and teaching, we scramble from campus to campus around a given state hoping to make about $18,000 per year. We have no benefits, no job security, no visibility, no administrative connections etc.

I do agree that the lack of pedagogical attention on the part of some professors can be frustrating. I happen to have an M.Ed. to pair with my terminal degree, so I do understand the complexity of that issues quite deeply. I will say this though: the prestige is in the eye of the beholder--people on campuses have to know highly complex and deep things about a given field, and they must contribute to expanding the field consistently in order to be held in such esteem. So imagine dividing up enough time to write books, conduct research, meet with graduate and undergraduate students, attend departmental meetings and events, and grade the work of 45-100+ students' work per semester. Just because the quality of life affords you a school schedule doesn't lessen the demands of what it takes to educate young people at any level. It may seem professors have it easier because there is less systematic interference in our day to day lives than a secondary school teacher. And yet, many of us are conducting office hours out of the trunk of our cars because we aren't given an office on a campus, all because we love both education and the ideas of our given field.

Amanda Morris, College Professor, Writer, Advisor, Writing Coach

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I applaud my peers' responses here and I will add this: Perpetuating divisiveness between college professors and high school teachers is counterproductive. One of my peers suggested that many tenured college profs make about $75,000 a year, and that is true. In fact, many of us make less. Those who work for research universities might (emphasis on might) make a little more than those profs who work for teaching universities, but pay for ALL educators is rather abysmal in America today. And salaries aside, general attitudes toward educators is even worse - the assumption is that highly educated, subject matter experts who not only teach, but also perform myriad other necessary tasks to keep the system functioning are somehow not worth what they make. This is a problematic mindset because it hurts all of us who have thrown our lot in with an education system that struggles with parity, equity, diversity, fairness, bullying, and so many other problems that the educators are expected to manage (even though we aren't trained to do so). And that divisive mindset ultimately hurts the students that we all seek to help. Please know that all people who become educators in America absolutely earn whatever they make.

Calvin Olsen, College Professor, Poet, and Editor

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Lisa is, as usual, right on with her response. I'd really like to drive home the difference between secondary school teachers and college professors in terms of education and areas of expertise.

I don't think anyone who honestly knows how hard teachers work on all levels would argue that any of them are paid enough, but many college professors--particularly those fortunate enough to gain and maintain tenure--have dedicated years to the study of their particular area. A terminal degree (which means the highest degree in a given field, like a PhD) is given to someone who has produced literature specific to their field at a level above and beyond the four-year degree given by universities. One way to think about it is to consider the textbooks used in high school and college. People with terminal degrees--college professors--write these texts. The prestige comes from producing that text and having thousands of students learn from it. That's not to say a high school teacher couldn't write a textbook, but most secondary-level teachers have such an overwhelming in-class workload that they are unable or unwilling to continue adding new ideas and texts to their field in addition to teaching in their classroom.

It's also key to remember that there are college professors and secondary school teachers that hold master's degrees. Some states, counties, and school districts require teachers to have certification and a master's degree, and some don't. But all college professors have to have at least one master's degree, and even then they are barred from teaching upper-level courses without a PhD or a record of major publications.

And that brings me to the last point for now: just because a college professor doesn't have a teaching certification doesn't mean they aren't able to teach. Most graduate students pursuing their terminal degree teach in addition to their coursework and thesis/dissertation writing, oftentimes with heavier classloads than some tenured professors. College professors have to meet the requirements set by the college or university rather than by the school district or the state. There are far more options for classes because there are so many fields of expertise, whereas in secondary education there is always a certain level of understanding needing to be met. Consider a high school English class: if it's not an honors class, you probably read a few novels, learn some dates, and write some essays. Everything is grouped into "English" or "Language Arts" and you get a taste of what's out there. Once you get to college, you can take survey courses, literature courses, writing courses of various types, theory courses, grammar courses, English teaching courses, genre- and time period-specific courses, comparative literature courses, etc., etc., etc. (and all of these classes have levels of varying intensity and focus). What was one class at a secondary level is a series of universes in college that you'd never be able to study fully in your life. Secondary level teachers have a broad knowledge and understanding of their subject and can teach it beautifully, but college professors have a deeper version of that broad knowledge in addition to years of study and subsequent publications in their particular area of expertise. They don't just teach the subject: they follow it, expand it, question it, mold it, and live it.

In short, the world will pay you what it thinks you are worth. If your toilet overflowed tonight, would you call a plumber or me? If you called me, I'd charge you $10 to plunge it, make sure it flushes, and tell you you're on your own if it happens again. Will the plumber charge you more? You bet your life on it. She'll charge you way more. But she'll do it right, she'll do it better, and she'll guarantee her work. So maybe just think of all teachers as plumbers: many of them are qualified to do the job and do it right, but you'll be a little more picky and a little more qualification-conscious once you have a specific problem you need solved that none of the regular plumbers have encountered.

Anonymous, Professor/teacher

In all fairness I am a teacher, I have 4 degrees, I research, exhibit and write. I have a terminal degree. I have taught at the graduate level. Many of my fellow "teachers" have too. I think the difference in prestige is a false choice. Education is valuable at all levels. In Spanish and Tagalog (Filipino). I am Professora, as are my peers teaching in college. I hope, as a culture, we can get past our tendency to diminish the value of "teachers." Many of us hold the title of Dr. With. PhD or EdD.

I know plenty of peers that have taught at all levels, ps - grad, and have terminal degrees. Each stage offers gradual release in students moving toward the next level of life. And ps-1st? Did you know that statistically if you don't get those yours right you won't see them in college? That's pretty important.

I think because there are shortcut teaching programs, there is a lack of understanding that most teachers have multiple degrees and have chosen to instruct students at that age level that they work with. I hear a lot of differentiation between teachers and professors based on the level of depth in content knowledge, or commitment to their field of study, and I would say that there are many many teachers who could work at a university tomorrow if that is what they chose. I also know people who have left university teaching to teach in primary and secondary schools. I have never heard anyone who has taught on both levels work so hard to draw distinctions and value one over their other.

Every day that I go to work I try to provide professors like you students who do not feel entitled because they do not come from an entitled background. I work to give you students who appreciate the college experience, and who may never have thought that it would even be an option for them. That training to think that life has possibilities for the non-privileged begins when students enter school at three years of age and hopefully it never ends.

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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Hear, hear! I am so glad this discussion is discussing the issue of contingent faculty. It seems like many good points have been bought up in that regard, so I will just share my own experience.

I come from a unique perspective as I taught in the secondary realm for eight years and higher ed for eight years (as contingent, then tenure track, and now tenured).

First, if I had stayed where I taught high school, I would be making more than I make now, so the belief that profs earn more money is a myth. Now, I make a good living and money isn't the reason I entered higher ed. I wanted academic freedom and more time to write.

I honestly don't know why people now are more impressed with me, but I do notice that is the case. Once I got fancy letters after my name, people seemed to assume I am smarter. But I am not. I just did a few more years of coursework. And frankly, part of me feels like I left the trenches. Secondary teachers deserve more accolades and prestige. There is so much to keep track of in the secondary space. It is the hardest job I have ever done.

Amy Yvette Garrou, College admissions expert (US and international colleges)

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Just to add a bit: I think there is huge variation on the college level and the high-school level as to professors' and teachers' salaries (re: pitifully low adjuncts' pay vs the pay of some public-school teachers in wealthier school districts). It isn't true to say that every college professor is paid more than every high-school teacher. I live in Washington, DC DC Public Schools, and DC/Northern Virginia/Montgomery County, MD public-school teachers' salaries are pretty good for experienced teachers.

I know high-school teachers who take professional development--and their subjects--as seriously as college professors do. I have taught myself, and have known many colleagues who bring what they learn from extra classes and conferences into their classrooms.

And there has been a push--indeed, originally required by No Child Left Behind-- to have high-school teachers (in public schools) certified to teach the grade level or the subject they've been assigned to teach. This hasn't always been the case.

I'm saying that I think all teachers--whether college professors, adjuncts, or public-school teachers--should be paid fairly. Public-school teachers have a different responsibility, yes: different from that of college professors because they are teaching students who are required to be in school (until age 16). Teachers are part of the basic education of a child, the instilling of not only knowledge but the curiosity and skills to pursue more knowledge. They have discplinary responsibilities and even pastoral responsibilities different from the college professor/adjunct. Both types of teachers have important, crucial responsibilities and key roles to play in a student's education--different roles but equally important, in my mind.

Lisa Hiton, Poet, Professor, Filmmaker, Writer, Arts Educator

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One of many nuggets on the rate of adjuncting:


milan joy, nice post

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milan joy, nice post

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Anonymous, Professor/teacher

As someone has a terminal degree and has taught on both the University and primary/secondary levels (preschool to 12th grade, special education), threads like this continue to blow me away. Often times started by teachers trying to understand why we are devalued and blamed for the state of education, they always end up about why university educators deserve their status more than teachers. Some argue university teaching requires greater depth of knowledge, or justify why it's more valuable because of their degree.

First let me set one myth straight, for those who stay teaching on Ps-12 levels more than five years, almost all districts demand a masters degree or a number of professional development credits equal to one, and terminal degrees are very common.

And as far as the depth of knowledge required, the hardest grades in which I have taught have been early childhood. Research shows those are the most important grades when determining the life path of a student. They are also the most devalued, even in primary schools. So, yeah, no pressure there. Additionally, there is an exceptional depth of knowledge required to teach anything well.

Teaching younger students also requires scholarship and research to be successful (if you're not in school that has turned into a yearlong program). Summers are spent on research and scholarship for all educators. Note that the professor above who has also taught on the university level explained that they left to have MORE time as a professor than she had in the trenches.

And while I completely understand the concerns of universities looking to primarily adjuncts, the national average pay teachers receive doesn't even cover the student loans. However, it is this very university-based prestige that allows universities to get away with this low pay. It is so prestigious to teach on the university level, universities can treat people as if they should just say thank you for the opportunity at all.

The difference in the value is this, university teachers have historically been predominately male. Primary and secondary teachers have historically been female (for the past two centuries). Prior to the mid-19th century, women could only teach in early education years. So a big part of the value system and people feeling the need to defend the status given to university teaching is in the history of the feminization teaching Ps-12 education.

Even our language reflects where we value education. My Spanish speaking students would call us all professors. Look at the best public education--countries like Finland--and teaching carries a heavy amount of prestige.

It is our history as educators in countries such as the U.S. that make this value distinction. It is sexism makes this distinction--and at what cost to our public schools?

Teachers create every other profession. If we can't get past this arbitrary distinction and start valuing teachers and our public schools, we won't need many university professors teaching at all.

Todd ElConquistador Brown, Todd Brown, NYC, Professor, Architectural Designer, Environmental Psychologist

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I agree with what all of my colleagues have already said. To add to their comments, I would also say that I believe that pay for teaching should be done on a graduated scale. As mentioned, their are drastic differences in pay for adjuncts, such as myself, and tenured professors--the latter earning significantly more as full-time faculty. Honestly, I would love to see institution of higher education implementing policies where adjuncts, and possibly tenured professors, are compensated based on the academic rigour required for the coursework we teach. I am nearing the end of my PhD program and have two professional (terminal) master's degrees. Over the last 8 years, I have taught over 14 courses at 4 institutions in 4 different departments. I have taught everything from entry level (101) psychology courses to graduate Urban Studies courses and the pay roughly equals the same per course. I often wonder, for example, why a 1st grade math teacher may, in some cases, be paid the same as--or more than--an AP Calculus teacher, depending on the school district. Or why should I be paid the same per class to teach Psych 100 to freshman as I am to teach URBST 745 to master's students who use my assigned final paper to earn their degree? I feel like this is reflective of the problem of how teachers in [higher] education are often undervalued from an administrative aspect.

M. Erez Kats, Seattle Language Arts Teacher, Author, and Artist

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Most colleges do require their professors to not only hold a Master's Degree, but a Doctoral degree as well. Being a college professor typically is another step up from being a secondary teacher, and you can imagine why this makes sense because of the depth of knowledge and thinking, the curriculum and overall scope of the work, and the prestige the job holds make it that much more difficult to attain. In addition to needing to have advanced knowledge of the subject(s) one is teaching, a college professor must also need to know precisely how to apply this knowledge into real world situations. Most college professors have an extensive network of connections and/or colleagues working in the business these students are studying to work in. That is also why you do see "guest" professors, such as famous authors, doctors, lawyers, etc. in this field. Even though not every famous author can become a professor, he/she typically possesses that advanced knowledge of not only the concepts, but the practical real world application of the subject. I.E. the "tricks of the trade" which is such a valuable commodity to students on a campus and the university alike. I have a Master's Degree, and teach secondary, but I do feel this extra amount of education would be necessary in order for me to become a college professor. That said, many community colleges will hire teachers with a Master's degree or less at times, and several professors have begun successful careers that way too.

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