Cash-strapped colleges across in the country, including in Virginia, are relying increasingly on low-paid adjunct professors to close teaching gaps, especially when schools increase the number of students without adding faculty.

Fully-trained and capable professors with PhDs are teaching seven, eight or nine courses a year and pulling down barely subsistence-level money. The predicament is breathing new life into a flagging labor movement that sees adjunct professors as attractive recruitment targets.

According to a revealing story in this Sunday’s Richmond Times Dispatch, at Virginia Commonwealth University, the state’s largest school, only 35 percent of full-time faculty held tenure or tenure-track positions in 2012. In the early 2000s, the school added 8,500 students without adding faculty. Following this, the newspaper stated, budget cuts made jobs even tighter.

The school has 31,000 students, 2,048 full-time instructional faculty and 686 administrative and professional faculty members. They are buttressed by 1,205 adjunct, part-time professors. Many race from course to course to make ends meet.

One of these is Jennifer Garvin Sanchez, who makes an annual income of $18,500 (about poverty level for a family of three) while teaching seven religious studies courses a year. She says that maintenance workers earn more than she does.

The dilemma has prompted some adjunct professors to join the Service Employees International Union, which has 2.1 million members. Professors at Georgetown University joined in May, and American University’s adjunct faculty voted for collective bargaining last year.

More recently, in October, some professors at Tufts University, my alma mater, voted to join the SEIU.

Having such grossly-underpaid professors flies in the face of criticisms, especially among conservatives, that higher education is a cesspool of waste, ripe for MOOCs (massive open online courses), which, according to some, represent an inescapable and welcome high-tech future. The issue helped fuel the venomous situation at the University of Virginia last year, in which popular President Teresa Sullivan was ousted and then reinstated.

The sad part is that if anyone truly gets hurt by MOOCs, it is not likely to be overpaid administrators or sports coaches. It will be the adjunct professors, once again.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.