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Online and Underpaid?

April 16, 2012

Argosy University has cut pay rates for adjunct faculty who teach online -- by as much as 33 percent in some cases.

In a January e-mail message, obtained by Inside Higher Ed, an Argosy administrator described the pay cut: “Effective February 7, 2012, Argosy University Online will transition to one adjunct rate for undergraduate courses of $1,600 and one rate for graduate courses of $1,800.”

An Argosy adjunct, who asked to remain anonymous because sharing the e-mail might have violated employment agreements, said previous university pay rates for veteran adjuncts had been $2,200 for undergraduate courses and $2,700 for graduate courses. Newer hires may have been paid less in the past, the faculty member said.

The university is part of Education Management Corporation, one of the largest, publicly-traded for-profits. Officials with the parent company and Argosy declined requests for comment for this story. According to the e-mail, the university cut pay rates to “be more in line with comparable institutions’ adjunct pay for similar courses.” (Click here for the full message.)

Most colleges are tight-lipped about how much they pay adjunct professors. The paychecks generally aren’t much, and tracking down average compensation levels is tough, because adjunct pay can vary even within one institution’s departments.

Adjuncts often make ends meet by cobbling together gigs at several employers. This may be particularly true at online institutions, where professors are not limited by geography. 

Conventional wisdom holds that for-profits generally compensate online adjuncts better than do their nonprofit competitors. But some observers said that appeared to not be the case, at least at Argosy.

“This is low, even for for-profit online courses,” said Joe Berry, an advocate for adjuncts, in an e-mail. “It certainly is low compared to the online classes taught in traditional higher ed institutions."

The Coalition for the Academic Workforce will soon release a report on adjunct pay data, which faculty members self-submitted.

EDMC has battled negative publicity of late, mostly due to a whistle-blower lawsuit in which the U.S. Justice Department has alleged that the company violated federal law by providing financial incentives for admissions officers.

Total student enrollment at EDMC fell 4.5 percent last year, and financial analysts have said that Argosy’s recent transition to a non-term academic calendar may have contributed to some of the enrollment dip. The company’s share price is down more than 35 percent over the last year. However, many other publicly-traded for-profits have also seen their enrollments and revenues decline.

In the e-mail announcing the pay cut, the Argosy official said adjuncts would still be paid better than their peers at other colleges. “Although this may be less than some of you are accustomed to receiving, please be aware that it is significantly more than received at most other online institutions,” the administrator wrote. “We felt it important to continue to compensate our faculty at the upper echelon of the scale because of the confidence we have in your dedication to our students.”

Maria Maisto is skeptical about those claims. Maisto, an adjunct faculty member at Cuyahoga Community College and board president of the New Faculty Majority, said the new pay rate was “ridiculously low” even for online courses, which she said are highly labor-intensive for faculty to teach.

Furthermore, Maisto said it’s virtually impossible to prove that an an institution pays more than the average rate, because nobody has comprehensive pay data. And it’s hardly good news if Argosy is indeed paying a relatively generous amount, she said. “If it’s comparable to poverty-level wages, that’s not saying much."

 

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