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House Committee Report Highlights Plight of Adjunct Professors

Congress Takes Note
January 24, 2014

WASHINGTON -- It's time for Congress to pay attention to the abuse of adjunct faculty members, and the way their poor working conditions impact not only them, but their students, says a new report from the House Education and the Workforce Committee. While the report largely endorses previous studies on the subject, “The Just-In-Time Professor” document marks the first time Congress has so formally acknowledged a situation that adjunct activists have long deemed exploitative.

“The contingent faculty trend appears to mirror trends in the general labor market toward a flexible, ‘just-in-time’ workforce, with lower compensation and unpredictable schedules for what were once considered middle-class jobs,” says the report from the office of Rep. George Miller, the senior committee Democrat, from California. “The trend should be of concern to policymakers both because of what it means for the living standards and the work lives of those individuals we expect to educate the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and other highly skilled workers, and what it may mean for the quality of higher education itself.”

The report, based on the anecdotal data from adjuncts and existing research, found that 98 percent of respondents in an online, committee-sponsored forum felt they were “missing opportunities to better serve their students because of the demands of their schedule.”

“Students get their work back more slowly and I cannot hold office hours (I only actually have an office in one of the four colleges [I teach at]) and prep is sometimes rushed,” one adjunct respondent wrote. “I am an outstanding teacher and care about the quality of education that my students receive, although the sheer volume of the workload makes it hard.”

Another wrote: “When you pay an adjunct only for the contact hours they spend in the classroom, it doesn’t given adjuncts a lot of motivation to spend extra time outside of class working on projects for students or scheduling extra time to help those who come to class unprepared to study or write at a college level.”

Consistent with existing data, the report says adjuncts are underpaid compared to their tenure-line colleagues and many take on multiple jobs at multiple institutions to make ends meet.

The median respondent salary was $22,041, below the federal poverty line for a family of four ($23,550), although the typical course load was difficult to ascertain from the online forum (with adjuncts reporting as many as 10 courses per semester). Some 89 percent of respondents teach at two or more institutions, and most can’t depend on assignments from semester to semester. Many also said they relied on help from family members and government assistance to survive, despite having advanced degrees. More than 50 percent of respondents had Ph.D.s and 30 percent held master’s degrees.

Respondents also reported low prospects for advancement to tenure-line or full-time jobs, and 89 percent said they received no professional support for teaching or research from their institutions. The average length of time respondents said they’d worked as an adjunct was 10 years. The median length of time was four years.

“Growing up in a poor neighborhood … I believed earning several college degrees would be my path out of poverty, but that is no longer the case,” one adjunct said.

The report concludes that “adjuncts and other contingent faculty likely make up the most highly educated and experienced workers and on food stamps and other public assistance in the country.”

“The Just-in-Time Professor” also says low adjunct pay costs taxpayers. According to Congressional Research Service analysis, a family of three in California relying solely on the median adjunct salary would qualify for Medicaid and food stamps, costing $13,645 annually.

Regarding benefits, most online forum respondents – 75 percent – said they did not have access to health insurance coverage through their employer or employers. Many said their eligibility was linked to the number of course hours they taught, and that those hours did not count the time needed to prepare for class or meet students.

“Benefits are really out of reach at my pay scale,” one adjunct wrote. “The health care plan that I could buy into costs more than my take-home pay even on a good year (and far more than I earn in an bad year). I don’t earn enough to save for retirement (every month is a struggle just to pay the basic bills). My ‘retirement’ plan is to work until they bury me.”

Many respondents also expressed outrage at the way their employers were interpreting the so-called employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act, which, starting in January, requires large employers to offer full-time employees health insurance or pay a fine. In response, dozens of institutions across the country have simply capped adjuncts’ maximum course loads to make them ineligible for coverage.

“I was supposed to teach three courses this fall, but the university canceled one of my courses in August, the week before the semester started,” one adjunct wrote. “The reason was to avoid having to give me any benefits, including health care, due to the Affordable Care Act.”

Anecdotal data was gathered from an online forum announced in November to investigate how the increased employment of adjuncts has impacted their lives, as well as instructional quality. The forum, which closed to comments last month, asked adjuncts to answer the following questions:

  • For how long have you worked as a contingent faculty or instructor?
  • How would you describe the working conditions of contingent faculty and instructors at your college or university, including matters like compensation, benefits, opportunities for growth and advancement, job stability, and administrative and professional support?
  • How do those conditions help or hinder your ability to earn a living and have a stable and successful career in higher education? What impact, if any, do those working conditions have on students or higher education generally?
  • How do those working conditions help or hinder your ability to do your job, or how do they otherwise affect students in achieving their educational goals?

Some 845 adjuncts from 41 states responded, although not all answered all questions. But the sample size was big enough for the report to conclude that “the link between student outcomes and contingent faculty working conditions – not just the adjuncts’ schedules and compensation but the respect and professional support they receive from their schools – deserves serious scrutiny from the committee and other policymakers around the country, as well as from institutions of higher education themselves.”

The report accuses many institutions of choosing to “balance their budgets on the backs of adjuncts,” and says that "increased budget transparency" would be a "critical step in understanding the nature and necessity of this now-pervasive labor practice and whether and how it may be changed."

The document also endorses the proposed Part-Time Workers Bill of Rights, legislation sponsored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, as a way to address many of the concerns stemming from adjuncts' part-time status. The bill extends employers' health insurance responsibility under the Affordable Care Act to part-time workers, among other benefits.

Miller was not available for immediate comment. In a news release, he said the report was far from exhaustive but raised “serious concerns” nonetheless.

“Over the next few months my fellow committee Democrats, my staff, and I intend to work with universities and colleges, committee Republicans, contingent faculty, and their advocates to seek ways to address the troubling issues raised by this report and by contingent faculty across the country,” he said.

Miller’s office offered few additional details as to how the report might lead to action. A spokeswoman said via email: “We’re still in the early stages of exploring the issues raised through our eForum about the working conditions of adjunct faculty. After publishing the report so that we can share the responses we received, Rep. Miller and his staff will start having conversations with his colleagues on the committee — both Democratic and Republican — as well as with interested organizations and other faculty and advocates about the best path forward to address the identified concerns.”

Miller launched the forum after hearing testimony from Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy group, on the impact of the Affordable Care Act on adjunct professors whose hours have been capped by their institutions. At that hearing, in November, Miller said he wanted to hear more about conditions of adjunct employment in general.

Via email, Maisto said she was “gratified” her testimony had played a role in the launching of the forum, and was pleased with the final report.

“The committee did its research and read the forum submissions with care and concern,” she said, noting the high volume of responses despite the busy time of year for academics. “We especially appreciate that the committee has begun identifying practical solutions to many of the problems that we and other organizations and researchers have been saying need to be addressed, and we look forward to working with them further on this.”

The organization will continue reaching out to lawmakers on a regular basis to further address the “crisis” in higher education, she said.

Gary Rhoades, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, said the report was a "profoundly important step in policymakers recognizing and addressing the disturbing reality that most professors are not tenured or tenure stream, and are working in precarious positions that often lack health care and pensions, as well as access to basic instructional resources and institutional support."

Rhoades said he agreed with the report's call for a part-time workers' bill of rights, but said Congress should also act to extend unemployment benefits to adjuncts, who historically have had difficulty getting approval for such assistance when they are without work, such as during the summer. Congress also should work to create incentives for institutions to invest in faculty and instruction, along with disincentives for continued, "disproportionate" investment in administrative and other non-instructional costs, he said.

Since launching the forum, Miller has announced he will retire at the end of his term. The spokeswoman said: “We’ve already seen interest in these questions from Rep. Miller’s colleagues during prior committee hearings, and while Rep. Miller will continue to lead on this issue as the senior Democrat on the committee, we’re confident that others will be engaged in this important topic as we move forward.”

 

 

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