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As the new academic year begins, adjuncts at dozens of institutions across the country will be returning to campus with lighter course loads and smaller paychecks. That's because some colleges and universities are trying to keep their hours below the threshold at which they become benefits-eligible employees under the Affordable Care Act.

And at at least one university, graduate students, too, will be subject to lighter workloads for the same reasons.

Earlier this summer, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa sent e-mails to graduate students announcing that they no longer could work more than 20 hours per week, universitywide, due to the Affordable Care Act. The act defines full-time employees as those working 30 hours a week or more, on average. Large employers such as colleges and universities that don’t offer those employees health care will be subject to hefty, per-employee fines.

“The Health Care Reform Act [sic.] includes provisions which will directly affect elements of previous employment policies for all student employees,” reads Alabama’s new Graduate Student Employment Policy. “This new policy is based on recommendations from human resources professionals and is consistent with policies now adopted by many other national institutions impacted by these changes.”

Previously, a cap on student work hours was in place within various university departments, but no limit was enforced universitywide. Teaching assistants teaching 20 hours per week could work additional hours within other programs or services, for example.

It’s unclear how many students the new policy will affect. A university spokeswoman said the majority of students work 20 hours per week or less, and that graduate teaching assistants and research assistants are eligible for individual fully or partially subsidized health care. But nationally, many graduate students work long hours -- longer than officially recommended by their universities -- to try to earn enough money to minimize borrowing, support families and for other reasons.

Experts said Alabama’s move could signal a coming trend.

“We haven’t heard from other schools that this has been happening, but it sounds like it could be the start of people thinking about it,” said Meredith Niles, director of legislative affairs at the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and a graduate student of ecology at the University of California at Davis.

The association is concerned that widespread workload caps amount to a “double economic whammy for graduate students,” Niles said. That means they'd lose income and those who previously qualified as benefits-eligible employees could have to seek out-of-pocket health insurance – leading them to assume additional debt in many cases.

Across academe, it’s hard to know how many students would be impacted by widespread workload caps, Niles said, as existing cap and health care policies vary widely. While 20 working hours is a common limit, institutions such as Davis have 30-hour caps, or higher.  

The Affordable Care Act’s implications for graduate students are “definitely something we’re as an organization trying to wrap our heads around, so that come Oct. 1 [when enrollment opens for public health care exchanges] students have tools to plan what their options are.”

Robert Sowell, vice president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said the question was raised by numerous university officials this summer during an organization meeting. The council is currently researching the topic to provide institutions advice on the matter. For example, he said, administrators have asked whether a graduate student teaching 20 hours in his or her department, but who works in another area on campus for an additional 10 hours, would qualify as “full-time.”

Andy Brantley, president and CEO of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, said in an e-mail that unless the Internal Revenue Service changes its current guidance regarding the 30-hour “full-time” employee qualifier, campuses will be required to track and count all hours worked per week, regardless of the number of part-time positions or number of departments involved.

That concerned Adrianna Kezar, director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, a partnership between the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. On-campus work, at least at the undergraduate level, is linked to better student outcomes than off-campus work, she said. (Undergraduates are subject to the 20-hour cap at Alabama, as well.) Universities limiting on-campus hours would force needier students off campus for work.

Because 20 hours is the standard workload cap for graduate students, she said, there’s no need to institute limits “en masse.”

Instead, Kezar said, “What institutions should be looking at as is why students need to work more than 20 hours a week -- that's because we are having more students in graduate programs than we fund,” particularly in the humanities. The professor said she worked 40 hours per week as a graduate student at three different university offices in order to pay off her loans.

Meanwhile, the pace of adjuncts’ hours getting cut hasn’t slowed, with Arizona State University being the latest university to announce part-time faculty caps related to the Affordable Care Act. That’s despite the fact that the White House gave employers a recent extension for providing benefits. Instead of having to provide full-time employees with health care or face fines by January, as first announced, the act’s so-called “employer mandate” now takes effect in 2015.

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