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Although the Affordable Care Act is intended to increase access to health insurance, a growing number of community colleges have been moving in the opposite direction by cutting adjuncts’ hours and, consequently, their eligibility for coverage. But one college is bucking the trend in part, offering insurance to a limited number of non-tenure-track faculty.

Starting next year, the College of DuPage in Illinois will offer up to 45 “lecturer” appointments to adjuncts, who will teach up to 80 percent of a full-time professor’s course load, or 30-32 credit hours annually, and be eligible for health insurance coverage. With a few exceptions, all other adjuncts’ hours will be limited to no more than 27 credit hours per year, including summers. According to DuPage's calculations, by which one credit hour is one hour worked, that's safely below the act's 30-hour work week definition of full-time. (Businesses with 50 or more employees that fail to offer health insurance to full-timers are subject to hefty fines under the law, effective January 2014.) The vice president of academic affairs will offer the appointments on a year-to-year basis, based on need areas within the college and performance and evaluation of the applicants.

Robert Breuder, president of DuPage, said the arrangement was a “perfect compromise,” one that allows the college to comply with the law, honor the adjuncts who make up the majority of its teaching force and still retain the cost-effectiveness and flexibility of a majority-adjunct work force. He estimated that the move would cost the college about $550,000 annually, or 0.3 percent of its operating budget, made possible by prudent college management during the past five years. But extending health care to more adjuncts would be financially “cataclysmic” to the institution, he said, particularly due to Illinois’s fiscal woes and consequent decreases in state funding. Breuder said he didn’t know how many adjuncts’ typical course loads would be cut by the new, 27-credit-hour ceiling for non-lecturers, but that the college has been trending toward hiring more adjuncts to teach lighter course loads for some time.

Additionally, the number of appointments is equivalent to 15 percent of the college’s 300 full-time faculty, a figure Breuder said doesn’t threaten to corrode the tenure-track system (the number of lecturers will rise to 20 percent of full-time faculty by the fourth year of the plan). Breuder said both unionized and non-unionized adjuncts also have embraced the plan. Representatives of the 650-member College of DuPage Adjuncts Association were not immediately available for comment, but Mike Dusik, president emeritus of the organization, told the Daily Herald that DuPage adjuncts are getting a “better deal” than their counterparts at other community colleges. Coverage options available to adjuncts will be the same as those available to full-time employees.

But the plan isn’t beyond reproach. Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority adjunct advocacy organization, praised the college’s attempt to address the inequities surrounding adjunct employment but compared the scale – 45 lecturer positions among 1,200 adjunct faculty – to “cutting down a tree with a butter knife.” Much deeper reform across higher education is needed, she said, as other colleges continue to find ways to deny adjuncts opportunities for access to health care.

David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research of the American Association of Community Colleges, said DuPage was the only college he knew of to offer health insurance to some adjuncts in light of the Affordable Care Act. Baime blamed part of the problem on the federal government, including the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service. Colleges are operating in a gray area as they try to determine the impact of the new health care law on their bottom lines, he said, without a clear definition of what the 30-hour, full-time stipulation means in academe, where credit hours don’t necessarily reflect an instructor’s true work load. Previously released guidelines from the IRS encourage institutions to use a “reasonable” method for calculating hours worked, but nothing concrete has emerged – even after a federal hearing on the matter last month.

But Breuder said he runs the college like a business, and doesn’t wait to take cues from the government. DuPage arrived at its interpretation of the law based on what’s best for the college and the taxpayers who support it.

“We have the capacity to be able to do this and it sends a very good message,” he said.

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