College Counselors and College Labor

It's time to ask questions about colleges' reliance on adjuncts, writes Jane S. Gabin.

June 24, 2019

In my nightmares, all the outreach programs for under-represented and/or first-gen students will become irrelevant as tuition soars. Colleges will go out of business as fewer and fewer people can afford to teach there. The American education system will explode in a fireball constructed by corporate greed, and this country will return to a 19th-century ethic, where only those who can afford it will pursue academics. But this is a nightmare view.

In reality, though, we are approaching this crisis as more students want to go to college; student debt mounts higher, while faculty pay declines. Educators -- both in public school systems and those who do the bulk of college teaching -- are often treated as expendable commodities. Collective action by public school teachers and by contingent faculty at colleges and universities all across the nation are all occurring simultaneously -- and this is no coincidence.

If teachers' concerns go unheeded, or if they get a meaningless response, and substantial corrective action does not take place soon, this could be the beginning of the end of quality education in this country. Teachers are demoralized, angry and often feel powerless.

The persistent and growing exploitation of adjunct college faculty is a significant labor issue in higher education with grave moral and academic implications. This is a pervasive problem, nationally, and those in higher education should be very, very concerned.

Where do college counselors come in? Unwittingly, those who advise high school applicants, those who attend college and those who pay for it are enabling academic labor abuse on a national scale. While parents, students and their counselors worry about the increasing selectivity of colleges, and the rising cost of attending, they need to see that this is related to the labor ethics aspect of higher education.

Pay levels for college faculty have been stagnant (and for part-timers, often too low to live on). This is not a new problem -- it's been going on since the 1970s, when adjuncts had to teach at several schools in order to earn the equivalent of a full-time salary. Paid by the course, these teachers usually receive no benefits (such as health insurance). Today's college classes are larger, contracts are shorter, and salaries remain abysmal.

Counselors, students and parents need to investigate who is actually doing the teaching at the schools under consideration. But it is unlikely that they will get solid information from most admissions staff, who are, in general, not privy to administrative decisions. Therefore, consumers have to do their own research. If they choose not to apply or enroll, they need to tell the college why. Colleges and universities need to understand that their reliance on "cheap" teaching may cost them dearly. They also need to be able to explain why the person who teaches the British lit survey or Chem 1 doesn't get health insurance but that the college president makes $800,000.

Unfortunately, this is part of the bottom-line emphasis that has crept through higher education for the past 20 years. While some institutions may have low overall percentages of part-time faculty, some departments offer undergraduate courses taught primarily by contingent labor.

If we do nothing, colleges will continue to hire and exploit part-time teachers. There is a seemingly endless supply of cheap-to-employ, bright, idealistic people who love teaching and hope to advance by "getting a foot in the door." In economic terms, the colleges may win. But our students will lose.

We need to turn to hard fact, and today's best source of academic facts -- accessible to the public -- is the Common Data Set (CDS). This is a statistical compilation made by each college or university, usually by that school's office of institutional research. Some colleges are very up front about their CDS information; others make it extremely hard to find. Compare the numbers of full-time teachers with the number of part-timers. A university with a part-time faculty percentage of 20 or even 30 percent is not uncommon, as pedagogical experience is part of the training of all upper-level graduate students. But 40 percent is not healthy.

Recently, I completed my own informal research, testing my assumptions that employment abuse in higher education occurs mostly in large urban public universities. I began with a sample of 200 colleges and universities representative of popular schools to which many of my own advisees have applied during the last five years. Included were public and private institutions, large schools and small, both colleges and universities, religious and secular.

I checked the CDS for each college, then arranged schools in order of the highest number of part-time faculty compared with the number of full-time faculty. The result was astounding: 67 of the 200 colleges had huge numbers of contingent teachers.

Next, I contacted the Provosts of those 67 colleges offering them a chance to clarify the numbers. I recognized that special circumstances might affect statistics.

But most colleges ignored me.

Only 15 of 67 colleges responded, some in detail. One was concerned that the CDS statistics did not present the school in the best light. One provost sent me a rather snippy e-mail saying that everything they do is legal. Two deans actually called me on the phone; we had real dialogue, where I was very up front about my sympathies for the adjuncts. One administrator even sadly revealed he understood my questions very well -- as his spouse is an adjunct.

It is true the CDS does not distinguish between which kind of part-time teacher is involved -- one working full-time elsewhere but teaching one college class, or another person teaching one class and working part-time at two other schools to make ends meet. It is more useful to ask: "What percentage of your undergraduate courses are taught by part-time faculty?" The answer will differ from school to school, and from department to department. Counselors and their students must therefore ask colleges this question, and request substantiation.

Counselors are the ones who steer applicants to colleges. When we look at a college's website and their "fast facts," we see a graduation rate, the cost of tuition, programs offered and a student/faculty ratio. But do we see anything about the number of teachers or the conditions of employment? No.

Admissions representatives must be asked uncomfortable questions. Some colleges may be charging our students high tuition, yet shortchanging them. Are the people who teach them treated equitably?

What public school teachers and what college teachers are going through is connected. Despite creating professional organizations, building awareness in the community and occasionally striking, teachers, especially adjuncts, have gained little ground in the past 30 years. This lack of progress in the way this country treats its educators -- as an expendable resource -- is unfortunately consistent with the way education itself is regarded. Education is a very low priority. When state governments have to trim their spending, the first victim is usually education.

But only unified action by all academic labor and their allies, nationwide, can save higher education.

If these efforts do not achieve true and just change in our nation's public schools and institutions of higher education, expect a continuing decline. More teachers will leave the profession, fewer students will aspire to become teachers and classes, from kindergarten to post-secondary, will get even larger. Only those who can afford it will even go to college or graduate school. Adjuncts will quit in disgust, courses will have no teachers and colleges will have to retrench or close down. Students may pursue degrees, but not real education.

Those of us who were nurtured by caring teachers, and those of us who still care about students, are filled with dread. We counselors must speak out, collectively, before higher education becomes as inaccessible to most as it was 150 years ago.

Remember: teacher working conditions = student learning conditions.



Jane S. Gabin has taught high school and college classes. For 10 years she worked in undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and for more than a decade worked in college counseling in the New York City metro area, most recently at the United Nations International School,


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