Adjuncts shouldn’t have to fix a broken system
For 10 years I taught as a full-time professor at a community college. My loads were between 4-4-0 and 5-5-4, depending on the year. Typically I had 2-4 preps each semester. With a PhD and two Master’s degrees my hourly wage was somewhere around $40/hr if I truly worked a 40-hour week and I received health care and retirement benefits on top of that. Realistically, benefits probably made my hourly wage more like $60/hr, but then working 60-hour weeks brought it back to about $40/hr.
I left academia in 2012 to pursue a career in the corporate world, and now I’m the CEO of a software company (Coursetune). However, I teach one class a semester as an adjunct, and I consider this something like volunteerism. I teach this class because I want to interact with students and I want to keep in touch with the on-the-ground issues of a campus and its faculty. Being an adjunct nets me one other bonus that I can’t seem to get any other easy way, and that is access to academic journals.
Considering time I am actually in class, the time it takes to prep the class I teach, answer student questions outside of class, and write/grade the 5 tests I will give during the semester, I make approximately $15/hour (before I buy classroom supplies and consider transit time to and from campus). Translate that to an annual wage for the U.S. and this sits right around the poverty line for a family of 4.
I have no less experience teaching. I have no less experience in the content area I teach. My teaching skills are not out-of-date (in fact, I still give keynotes about best practices in teaching and learning). I write letters of recommendation for students. I contact students when I am worried about them. I hold office hours. I do everything for the classes I teach that I used to do when I was a full-time professor. You could even say that I am now more prepared to help students understand how the skills they learn in class might apply in the real world because I now work outside of academia (where most of them will work too). I just get paid one-third of what I used to make for the exact same work.
For the record, I love teaching for Westminster College, and it pays one of the higher adjunct wages in Salt Lake City. Westminster provides great faculty support and my colleagues try to do everything they can to make life generally easy for adjuncts (without taking away our autonomy). I teach for Westminster because they don’t treat me like a minimum-wage worker, I like the students, and I enjoy their campus community. My colleagues value my opinions, they give me the freedom to construct a truly awesome learning experience for students, and they value me as a professional.
I am what an adjunct was always supposed to be (before it became a cost-savings measure at institutions of higher education) – a working professional who desires to teach students and is not looking to “live” off the income. I teach because I love working with students and having a classroom and digital space to try out new things. But I would never teach more than one class without asking for higher pay or benefits. Being adjunct faculty (as the field is constructed today) is not a viable career.
What I don’t get is how education has become an industry (are there others?) where a flexible, educated, contingent workforce actually makes much less per hour than the wage rate for an equivalent full-time employee. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that unionizing the adjunct population is ever going to happen – I’ve been watching this issue for 15 years and there has been only backwards progress. For every one school that unionizes the adjunct workforce, the percentage of adjuncts in higher education goes up by a few percent across the board. In 1975, about 30% of college faculty were part time. Today we are hovering around 75% part-time faculty.
I write this post because I am disgusted that higher education – an industry that values and cares so deeply for the health and well-being of its students – continues to exploit adjunct professors (especially those that are actually trying to cobble a career of teaching part-time for multiple schools).
Adjunct work is a job with a minimum barrier to entry of a Master’s degree (and often a PhD). You cannot get this job without enduring (and paying for) at least 6 years of education yourself. Nobody should be trying to support their family on the wages that are paid for adjunct work. And if every adjunct in the country simultaneously realized that, and walked away from all but one class, the pay structure would actually have to change.
A 2014 IRS Ruling allowed colleges to classify adjunct work at 2.25 hours worked for 1 hour of classroom assignment. So a 4-credit class translates to 9 hours a week of work. Unfortunately this did nothing to help adjuncts. Instead of getting benefits over 30 hours, adjuncts got less courses at each institution so that the institutions could avoid triggering rules that would force them to pay benefits. So an adjunct who used to teach 4 classes a semester for one institution now has to teach 2 classes for 2 institutions to avoid triggering the rule. That is two sets of mandatory college trainings, two sets of emails to read, two sets of administrative policies to learn, two campus calendars (often with different holidays) to keep, and if you are super unlucky, two learning management systems to learn.
I think the ship has sailed on any effort to gain back full-time faculty positions. It seems to me that the only way true living wages and benefits for adjuncts could possibly happen is if the adjunct hours pooled for all the institutions that one worked at, turning an adjunct into a citizen who should receive healthcare benefits and access to retirement planning when they hit 40 hours total. Okay, okay, this is getting dangerously close to an argument for socialism. What civilized countries would actually give benefits pooled over hours worked at multiple jobs? (yes, sarcasm)
Practically, if our laws supported the necessity, we could support this kind of a workforce model through a little bit of technology (you’ve heard of Uber, Lyft, Upwork, and AirBnB?). If adjuncts were hired through an app similar to Upwork, then institutions could make partial payments towards health and retirement benefits for each class taught. Adjunct professors could advertise their services – sharing educational background, teaching philosophy, certifications that they have various trainings (FERPA, Diversity, Disabilities), teaching evaluations, and set their hourly rate. Your school wants “great” professors for your students? Well, maybe you should actually have to pay more for a 5-star professor than you do for a 3-star professor? Crazy talk, I know – after all, all the cogs in the system are interchangeable right?
What’s the end game on this adjunct game for colleges and universities? Is it 90% of classes taught by adjuncts? 100%? Uber uses a contingent workforce of drivers to move people around, but only until they can sell the services of self-driving cars. Is higher education just using adjuncts until they are replaced with AI-possessing robots? I wonder what the OIG will have to say about the regular and substantive interaction on that …
If colleges and universities truly value their adjunct professors, they will work together to find a solution that provides fair benefits and pay to adjuncts who work across multiple institutions. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of a poorly-paid overworked contingent workforce to get a bunch of mostly liberally-minded educators to do the right thing here. Colleges should do right by their adjuncts in the same ways that they do right by their students.