Freelance Academics: Tax Treatment of Adjunct Professors

Are adjunct professors independent contractors (1099 workers) or W2 employees?  

Adjuncts are typically contracted to teach on a course-by-course basis but are considered W2 employees for tax purposes.       

The difference between 1099 and W2 status is that 1099 workers are employed as independent contractors or freelancers, while W2 workers are employees of an institution. When a university hires an adjunct professor as a W2 employee, the university is responsible for FICA taxes, federal and state unemployment, and even worker's comp.

Adjunct professors are typically hired as W2 employees and are therefore taxed like regular employees so they do not have to pay self-employment taxes on income earned as an adjunct.  But because they aren't classified as 1099 independent contractors, adjuncts cannot deduct the some of the costs associated with teaching, like printing, paper, pens, and home office space.

A recent U.S. Tax Court decision held that an adjunct college professor was still an employee, despite the fact that he provided his own computer and Internet connection, had no office at the school, and taught the class remotely online. The court held that the professor was an employee for a few key factors, including "that the school determined the class schedule, managed registration of students, provided the web interface for the class, and bore all risk of profit and loss, along with the fact that the courses taught were part of the school's primary business."

Though there is a movement to classify academic freelancers who teach as adjuncts as a part of their paid work as independent contractors, the law has not changed and most often adjuncts are classified as W2 employees for tax purposes.