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It started in November, as a few colleges announced new limits on adjunct hours, fearful that not doing so would result in the part-time instructors being covered by institutional health plans under the new federal health care law. At that time, some higher education lobbyists said the trend was limited. Today it's clear the practice has spread.

“It’s definitely a trend. We’ve heard from colleges in Colorado, in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania, in Ohio, in Florida, so it’s no longer accurate to call it an isolated incident,” said Maria Maisto, president of the adjunct organization New Faculty Majority.

When a new provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009, more commonly known as Obamacare, goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2014, employers with more than 50 employees will have to cover those who work at least 30 hours a week. The Internal Revenue Service in January proposed that institutions must use “reasonable” methods to calculate how many hours of actual work one credit hour means for adjunct faculty members, and will heard arguments Tuesday about the issue.

But the idea that a federal agency like the IRS can create a one-size-fits-all calculation of how many hours an adjunct spends working outside the classroom is “insulting to students and ... insulting to faculty,” said Maisto.

“We know anecdotally the reality is faculty work far more than people give them credit for,” Maisto said, adding that colleges are not only "[skirting] the law," but also failing to invest in the faculty doing most of the teaching. The reality that many adjuncts work more than 30 hours a week is why colleges should provide health insurance, not a reason to limit their hours, she said.

"[C]olleges should especially be ashamed of doing that, given their missions and their obligations to instill civic values and respect for the law," she said.

Tidewater Community College, located in southeastern Virginia, is one of the more recent institutions to preemptively cap adjuncts’ hours to avoid having to provide part-time faculty with health insurance. The commonwealth's community college system, which governs 23 institutions, will on May 1 adopt new guidelines that limit adjuncts to teaching 10 credit hours per semester starting this fall.

“Having to scale back hours for a teacher who is eager to teach is not something that is easy to do,” said James Toscano, vice president for institutional advancement at Tidewater. The community college employs about 1,400 adjunct instructors who teach a varying number of credit hours.

Reduced course loads means more courses without instructors. To fill the gap, Tidewater and other institutions are resorting to more of the same, since hiring more adjuncts is less expensive than the alternative.

“We have had to set up some job fairs specifically to address the need,” Toscano said. “We’re having to be very aggressive, knowing that it’s not an easy task.”

Adrianna Kezar, co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, said capping hours for adjuncts is “sadly typical of the short-term decision making that [higher education has] spiraled into.”

“What’s very problematic to me is that it fits into this trend in higher education that we don’t think long term, that we don’t think systemically,” Kezar said.

As adjuncts make up about three-quarters of the teaching population at colleges and universities nationwide, Kezar said institutions should be changing their cost structures to accommodate, not circumvent, part-time faculty members.

Even though dozens of institutions -- Kezar estimated she has heard from 30 or 40 -- have decided to cap adjunct course loads, advocates say there is still time for administrators and faculty to reach a working compromise before the new regulations go into effect.

“We certainly think first and foremost that they’re jumping to conclusions about what the regulations are,” said Craig Smith, director of the American Federation of Teachers’ division of higher education. “From our standpoint, the problem here is not the law. The problem is employer behavior.”

David Baime, a senior vice president with the American Association of Community Colleges, said those institutions are not acting on an opportunity to deny adjuncts benefits. Instead, he said the federal mandate has put many community colleges in a bind.

“We really do believe that the institutions are behaving responsibly,” said Baime, whose organization includes about 1,100 members. “It is reasonable to see that colleges are concerned about having to spend resources they don’t have to provide health care benefits for faculty members who simply are not considered full-time faculty members by the institutions.”

The AFT and NFM argue capping adjuncts' hours will be detrimental to the quality of education, as instructors will have to teach at multiple institutions if they hope to make ends meet.

“You already have a system that puts tremendous amount of pressure on adjunct faculty,” Smith said. “We’re asking our part-time faculty to be committed to their institutions, but we’re not asking our institutions to be committed to their employees.”

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