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WASHINGTON -- As the Internal Revenue Service prepares to issue regulations on one of the most contentious side effects of health care reform in academe -- the question of how the Affordable Care Act applies to adjunct faculty members -- groups representing both colleges and faculty have weighed in on what the rules should say.

Since the Supreme Court upheld the health-care overhaul last June, some colleges have cut hours for adjunct faculty to avoid providing them with health insurance coverage required for full-time employees under the new law. In a proposed rule in January, the IRS said colleges needed to use “reasonable” methods to count the hours worked by adjunct faculty in order to determine whether they are full-time or not. But the rules didn’t specify what methods colleges might use.

In written comments on the proposed rule, the American Council on Education, representing the nation’s nonprofit and public colleges, and the New Faculty Majority, which represents faculty off the tenure track, both warn of unintended consequences from the law. But they call for different standards in measuring adjuncts’ work: ACE wants the work of part-time adjuncts compared to non-tenure-track faculty, not their tenure-track counterparts, while the New Faculty Majority argues that tenure-track faculty are a fairer comparison.

Adjunct faculty should be considered full-time if they teach at least three-quarters of the courseload of a full-time faculty member not on the tenure track, wrote Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public relations at the American Council on Education, in the association’s comments to the IRS. Comparing the teaching loads of tenure-track faculty members with those not on the tenure track is unfair, the association argues, because tenure-track faculty members might teach fewer hours but have responsibilities that their counterparts off the tenure track do not.

The association acknowledges that some adjunct faculty members also take on responsibilities such as advising students and performing institutional service. The New Faculty Majority, in its comments, argued that many adjuncts are expected to perform the same duties as tenure-track faculty.

“Assertions of different responsibilities are also not supported because adjunct faculty regularly carry out these additional types and amounts of work (service and research) without official recognition of that work,” the group wrote in its comments, which called for determining adjuncts’ full-time status based on a comparison with tenure-track faculty.

The New Faculty Majority also took issue with another recommendation from the American Council on Education: that an alternative way of determining full-time status could be based on total hours worked, assuming one hour of preparation for every hour of teaching. The “preponderance of calls for a 1:1 ratio of in-class to out-of-class hours as a conversion formula is forcing both colleges and adjunct faculty to place economic survival above considerations of educational quality or the integrity of the profession,” the New Faculty Majority wrote in its comments.

Assuming that each hour of teaching requires only an hour of work outside class would “institutionalize the practice of underreporting hours,” the group wrote, arguing that many adjunct faculty teach courses that require much more than an hour for each hour in class.

The faculty group had harsh words for colleges, saying that institutions are “wreaking havoc on adjunct faculty members’ livelihoods” by reducing adjuncts’ hours to avoid providing health care coverage, and warning that the IRS’s previous calls for a “reasonable” standard to determine whether or not adjuncts are full-time could be exploited by colleges and universities.

Until there is an official determination for how to count adjuncts as full-time for the purposes of the Affordable Care Act, reducing hours to evade coverage requirements should be considered “unreasonable,” the faculty group argued. “We are very concerned that this law could have far-reaching, unintended detrimental effects on higher education,” they wrote.

ACE didn’t address faculty concerns about reducing adjuncts’ hours in its comments, which also argued that students who work on campus should not be considered employees for the purpose of the Affordable Care Act. But the association had cautionary words of its own: without clearly defined exemptions, the cost of providing benefits to employees could rise -- and be passed on to students.

“These institutions face extraordinary challenges in providing students with access to affordable higher education,” Hartle wrote. “Students face many unintended consequences from these increased costs, such as the likelihood of increased tuition and reduced educational services.”

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