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When the Internal Revenue Service offered guidance earlier this month on how college and universities should count adjuncts’ hours in relations to the Affordable Care Act, the agency raised at least as many questions as it answered.

Chief among them was whether the guidance would make any real difference in the lives of adjuncts. Would colleges and universities stop capping adjuncts’ workloads to prevent them from qualifying as eligible for benefits under the law? Would institutions that already had done so rethink their caps? And would administrators even follow the guidance, which offers a “safe harbor” formula of 2.25 hours worked for each classroom contact hour, but still allows them to count total hours worked based on a decidedly ambiguous “reasonable” standard?

A few weeks out from the IRS guidance, it appears that it has made some difference, with at least one community college system moving to rethink its course load cap. But many others have made no such move, or confirmed that they won’t rethink their policies. It's important to note that many colleges adopted the caps, which resulted in many adjuncts losing sections -- and income -- before guidance had been issued, much to the frustration of many non-tenure-track faculty members.

Some adjuncts tracking the issue noted that the guidance isn’t final, but sets the stage for future discussions about the Affordable Care Act's impact on adjunct labor, and for discussions about the status of adjunct instructors in general.

Adrianna Kezar, professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and director of the Delphi Project to examine the changing academic work force, described the landscape like this, via email: “I know that there is some discussion on campuses about what to do and the short-term and long-term issues at stake. It is also happening at meetings and conferences. But those that decided to cut back hours will likely stay with that decision. Those that have not made decisions may follow the guidance.”

Still, she added, “I think that having it issued in terms of policy will shape some colleges and certainly is better than having no guidelines out there.”

Gary Rhoades, professor and director of the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, was slightly more hopeful. “I think that colleges will have an incentive to follow the guidelines, and that if they have already set other, lesser calculations, there will be good reason for them to revisit and revise those policies to conform with the government guidelines,” he said.

David Baime, vice president for government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges, said he thought the guidance "likely" would cause widespread review of previously adopted caps.

Starting about 18 months ago, colleges moved in droves to cap their adjuncts’ course loads ahead of the health care law’s so-called “employer mandate” taking effect. Large employers under the law must offer full-time employees – those who work 30 hours or more per week – health care benefits or face fines, so institutions all over the country moved to lower their course load caps for adjuncts or create them where they hadn’t existed before.

College associations warned institutions that they may be acting too soon, without explicit guidance from the federal government about how to count adjuncts’ total hours worked per week to determine if they were benefits-eligible under the law. Since adjuncts work outside of class to prepare for contact time with students, they said, it was unclear how to count adjuncts’ hours. Different adjuncts groups, college associations and unions proposed various formulas, but there was nothing concrete.

Many of the institutions were working off a kind of “worst case scenario” scenario formula, from the perspective of wanting to provide as few adjuncts health care as possible. Under that formula, which was supported by the American Federation of Teachers and some adjunct groups, one hour of contact time equaled two hours of outside preparation time, for a total of three hours. So Community College of Allegheny County, followed by many other institutions, announced a 10-credit-per-semester cap. It replaced a previous 12-credit cap, essentially meaning that most adjuncts could now teach three courses (nine credits) instead of four per semester in the fall and summer, for 27 hours per week total.

Allegheny did not respond to a request for comment on whether it would rethink its policy in light of the IRS guidance. Various institutions also are staying mum. A spokesman for the College of DuPage, which last year created some full-time positions for adjuncts while capping other adjuncts’ workload at 27 credits per, said the guidance wouldn’t change anything, and showed that the college’s policy is “appropriate within the clarified guidelines.”

The Virginia Community College system, however, is reviewing a course load cap it instituted last year for all adjuncts: 10 credits each in the fall and spring and 7 in the summer, a spokesman said. That cap resulted in sections being taken away from or limited for about 25 percent of the system’s some 7,000 adjuncts at 23 campuses, and could change based on a pending review of the IRS guidance and the Virginia “Manpower Control Program.” The state policy limits adjunct faculty at public institutions to 29 hours per week. Still, at least one college within the system has announced that new course loads of 12 credits and contact hours each for the fall and spring, and 8 in the summer, soon will be adopted, based on the relatively “relaxed” IRS guidance, The Washington Post reported. The college system spokesman said that announcement was premature.

Josh Ulman, chief government relations officer for the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, said he expected more and more colleges to follow the IRS model, to be in compliance should the guidelines change going forward.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in email that whether or not colleges would follow the guidelines was "simple." Employers that "embrace the sprit of the [law] -- which is rooted in the idea that everyone deserves access to high-quality and affordable healthcare -- will work with us to make it happen. Those who oppose the law or put cutting costs above high-quality education probably won't."

Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College, a large community college system, won’t change the ACA-related course load caps it instituted regardless of the guidance, President Tom Snyder said. Under the new caps, adjuncts can work 12 credit hours per semester, or about 27 hours total based on the IRS formula. Snyder, who recently offered  Congressional testimony on what he saw as the disproportionate impact of the new health care law on community colleges, given their high rates of employment of adjunct faculty, said he would continue to lobby for the possible exemption of colleges from the law. Snyder said the law "penalizes" adjunct faculty who want to teach more hours but must adhere to new course load caps, and the "school misses out on a skilled adjunct." And providing health care to all adjuncts teaching beyond the new caps would be prohibitively expensive, at the cost of $10 million annually, he said. To do that, Ivy Tech would have to downgrade health care plans for everyone else.

No college has yet announced it will offer more adjuncts health insurance as a result of the guidance. That didn’t come as a surprise to adjunct advocates, who often cite health insurance and other benefits as a kind of “last nut” to be cracked in organizing and other advocacy efforts that in many places already have led to better pay and job security, for example.

Because many institutions still recognize adjuncts as working only during contact classroom hours, Kezar said the guidelines “certainly should make more adjuncts qualify.” But, she said, “Institutions that are dead-set against providing them [with health insurance] will find ways around it."

Baime noted that the guidelines offer flexibility to colleges to offer "robust employment" of adjuncts without necessarily providing health insurance. Weingarten said that adjuncts who don't get insurance through their institutions are counting on expanded opportunities for coverage elsewhere in the law.

Ulman said that at the very least, the IRS guidance will make it clearer who might qualify for benefits so that institutions and employees can have more “honest discussions” about coverage.

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, said there was more work to be done to make sure that those kinds of honest discussions were happening on campuses. And given the lack of obvious enforcement mechanism in the guidance, she said, it’s up to adjuncts to demand it.

Despite the tumult of the past 18 months for adjuncts, advocates have said there’s a silver lining, to which the new IRS guidance adds: It’s brought the contingent academic labor issue out of the sector and into the broader policy debate.

Rhoades said the guidance is “official recognition that adjunct faculty work outside the class, as part of contributing to a quality education for the students, and that will create additional pressure on institutions to not just acknowledge that, but to actually remunerate these faculty for that work.”

Kezar agreed, saying, “the legislation and guidance have been really instrumental in bringing adjuncts’ plight to light." She noted Democratic Rep. George Miller’s recent report on adjunct labor issues, which was sparked by Maisto’s November testimony to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “He learned all that through the [Affordable Care Act] discussions.”

Ultimately, she said, the debate’s greatest impact “may not be on health care but on drawing attention to the slew of problems related to this work force model that has been grown beyond capacity to serve higher education well.”

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