Tuition Is Up, So Why Are College Profs on Welfare?

The faculty members participating in National Adjunct Walkout Day say they’ve had enough with low pay and no benefits.

A faculty walkout at the University of Southern Maine in March 2014. (Photo: Courtesy

Feb 24, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s an up-the-ante tactic more associated with workers in gritty, demanding jobs like coal mining or auto-factory work than with tweedy academics who toil at whiteboards in college classrooms. On Wednesday, however, the labor strike will move from the factory floor to the ivory tower when part-time professors stage a one-day walkout.

National Adjunct Walkout Day is an organized movement that has more in common with a Teamsters job action than it might seem at first glance. Like their blue-collar brethren, the adjuncts participating in the walkout want to put a spotlight on a hidden problem in higher education—lousy pay and poor working conditions—and give the public a glimpse of what life would be like without them.

At the same time, National Adjunct Walkout Day is intended to dial up the pressure on colleges that have become increasingly reliant on part-time instructors, who now make up perhaps as many as 6 in 10 faculty members at community colleges and four-year schools nationwide.

Though they hold more than one degree—most community colleges require a master’s to teach—education hasn’t been a ticket to the middle class for most adjuncts. They’re occasionally called “the hypereducated poor” because their paychecks can be so small that many qualify for food stamps. Because they’re only part-time employees, they usually don’t receive medical or dental benefits through the school they work for. It’s not unusual for adjunct professors to take on two or three different jobs, shuttling from one campus to another.

“The goal with NAWD is systemic change,” the organizer, an adjunct professor at San Jose State University, wrote in an email. The instructor, who insisted on anonymity, uses the alias National Adjunct on the event’s Facebook page and Twitter account.

National Adjunct wrote that the goal of the protest is to raise awareness of the problems part-time profs face, including workplace isolation, lack of resources, an increasing workload, little job security, and no support from school administrators.

John Martin, a history professor and chairman of the California Part Time Faculty Association, said hard data about the number of working adjuncts is hard to come by, but evidence suggests it’s “easily” at least 50 percent of faculty at four-year institutions, and probably closer to 60 percent nationwide.

“The California state university system has officially announced that 51 percent of the student body is taught by part-time lecturers,” he said, adding that many of them need several teaching jobs to make ends meet. “It’s just continually rising and rising and rising.”

Some part-timers cobble together teaching gigs on different campuses just to stay afloat, said Martin—he teaches at two different community colleges in Northern California. But he said if he were married with children, he’d probably sink below the poverty line.

“We’re typically paid 40 to 50 percent less than a full-time professor,” Martin said. “If I'm not teaching, I collect unemployment. After my last final in December I draw unemployment until it’s time to teach again in January.”

Organizing college professors, however, is challenging. Some states ban college educators from striking, while some are bound by union contracts. Still others fear they’ll get a pink slip if they speak out about what’s been called “education’s best-kept secret.” That’s why some participants are holding “teach-ins” on their campuses to explain the issue to the public and their students, National Adjunct wrote.

The push for higher pay and job security for adjuncts comes amid strong national crosscurrents in academia, and in American society at large. Most analysts and national leaders, including President Obama, insist higher education is a ticket to a good job and a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle, yet the cost of a diploma has skyrocketed, and students often take on five- or six-figure debt to attain one. Meanwhile, as the price of college surged over the past decade, according to experts, the recession pushed businesses and other employers to do more with less, making those middle-class jobs—including full-time college professorships—even harder to find.

“The adjunct crisis is one piece of this puzzle,” National Adjunct wrote. “The short answer is that higher education [is] losing its mission. At the same time tuition, student fees, and student debt have increased at unprecedented rates, administrative positions and salaries have risen, while reliance on contingent faculty has jumped to 75 percent. That's really a stunning number—75 percent of college courses in the U.S. are taught by contingent faculty, most of whom do not earn a living wage, and have no job security!”

For higher education to be in this kind of situation “is detrimental to departments, discipline, student learning, and student success,” wrote National Adjunct. “It also negates one of the very message colleges “sell” (again, at increasing debt rates to students)—that education has value.”

At the same time, college administrators are under pressure, too. A survey of school provosts by Inside Higher Ed found that most of administrators aren’t feeling the effects of the economic rebound, particularly those working at publicly funded universities, and they expect things will get worse before they improve.

“Most provosts expect to continue to rely on non–tenure track faculty members and are skeptical that unionizing will lead to substantial changes in adjunct pay and working conditions,” according to the survey summary. “But provosts at public colleges and universities (who are more likely to operate on campuses with collective bargaining) see more potential for gains for adjuncts than do private college provosts.”

Nevertheless, executives at schools that largely weathered the recession are competing hard for students and their tuition checks by spending millions on upscale dorms and the kind of amenities typically found in four-star vacation resorts. That doesn’t leave much money to go around, and untenured, adjunct faculty members are usually last in line when it’s time to get paid.

“More and more administrators are businesspeople—they’re not educators,” said Martin. “We live in a world now where everything is cut, cut, cut. Unfortunately, I’m in a situation where I have to work. I can’t lead a revolution.”

When asked if he’s thought about changing careers, Martin was philosophical. “I guess I could compete with the 18- and 19-year-olds working at McDonald’s, or work at Walmart,” he said, or find a partner with steadier work and health benefits. “But it comes down to the love of teaching and teaching students.”