One of the big draws of online education is that it can be easily untethered from the traditional semester schedule, with online universities often offering new classes 52 weeks a year. But while they are convenient for students, and profitable for institutions, rolling starts for classes can mean flimsy job security for the adjunct professors who teach them.
Making ends meet is particularly tough for online faculty when student enrollments are down, which is the case for most for-profit institutions these days. The sector has been battered by the lingering effects of the recession, competition from nonprofits and regulatory pressure from accreditors and lawmakers. Its overall enrollment slid 7.2 percent  last year, and the resulting money woes mean less work for professors.
Unlike their tenured peers at traditional colleges, when adjuncts at online institutions get the boot, few notice. Adjunct faculty members generally can’t unionize, and online instructors rarely even know their peers, who are scattered around the country or beyond. Some universities have begun hiring professors on a full-time, permanent basis for online programs, including Grand Canyon University and Southern New Hampshire University. But that practice remains rare, and the life of an online adjunct is largely that of a digital nomad.
“I am essentially in limbo for the foreseeable future,”
--Former instructor at the University of Phoenix
Isolation and a lack of protections make for tough working conditions , said Matt Williams, vice president New Faculty Majority, which advocates for adjuncts. “It creates an awful lot of uncertainty for everyone involved,” he said.
The lean days for the for-profits may be making the job market tighter for non-tenure-track faculty.
"The field is so competitive now," said Thomas A. Vadakkeveetil, who teaches marketing research online for both for-profit and nonprofit institutions. He said every job ad for an adjunct position lands an "enormous amount of applications."
And for some adjuncts, once open doors to steady employment online with for-profits have been shut, quickly. And new efforts by for-profits to improve student retention online might also be creating some new wrinkles for professors.
'State of Limbo'
The median compensation for an adjunct faculty member is $2,700 for a three-credit course, according to research  from the Coalition on the Academic Workforce. That works out to an annual salary of $21,600 for an adjunct who teaches four courses per semester. As a result, many instructors cobble together gigs at multiple institutions, which is easier to do online, where geography doesn’t matter.
One professor landed work with the University of Phoenix several years ago, teaching in the university’s associate degree track. (The professor asked to remain anonymous, mostly to remain on Phoenix’s good side for possible future work.) The professor teaches entirely online, and until recently, Phoenix was one of three institutions that employed the professor as an instructor.
Phoenix’s training requirements for faculty members are particularly laborious, according to the professor. A four-week training class was the first step after signing on with the for-profit giant. And a faculty mentor supervised the first class the professor taught.
Faculty preparation is a point of pride for the university, said Russ Paden, senior vice president of academic operations for Phoenix. “We really go to great lengths to make sure our faculty have all the training that they need.”
The training process is also necessary for the economy of scale that Phoenix largely pioneered in online education. By creating courses centrally, online institutions can standardize content and make sure they offer the same education to huge numbers of students – Phoenix’s overall enrollment is 320,000. Critics charge that this model, which is now shared by both for-profits and most upstart nonprofits, is akin to giving a script to professors and then restricting their wiggle-room to experiment in the classroom. Online institutions defend the practice, saying it’s about quality control. Either way, the efficiency gains are undeniable.
Before classes begin, Phoenix reaches out to faculty members to gauge their interest and availability. Paden said the university strives to make that contact 90 days before a class’s start date. In the case of this particular professor, notice about two possible courses came in about two months before they were slated to begin, in the late fall. The professor said, however, that this was plenty of time.
Then, as is generally the norm, according to the professor, Phoenix sends an e-mail a few days before the start date as a final confirmation of whether classes are a go. Both sections fell through. That news was a mixed bag, said the professor.
“While the loss of income was regrettable, I looked forward to a break from teaching for the University of Phoenix,” the professor said via e-mail, “which can be stressful because they had been packing more students into my classes of late and because they are demanding and particular about the way things are done, more so than other online schools I teach for.”
A subsequent e-mail was “shocking,” however. In that message the university said it had canceled the professor’s scheduled training for the “First-Year Sequence ," a student retention program that Phoenix launched in 2011. Since the training is a requirement, that means the professor has been shelved.
“I am essentially in limbo for the foreseeable future,” said the professor, who added that university administrators had not clearly explained why they nixed the training session.
Fewer Course Sections
University officials obviously could not clarify what happened in this particular case, since they weren’t given the professor’s identity. But they said faculty hiring tapered off during the last year.
“We’ve not brought in a lot of faculty members recently,” said Paden. “We’re sticking with the pool that we have.”
Phoenix, which is the biggest and most established of for-profits, has not been immune  to the sector’s recent troubles. Its enrollment is down 14 percent over the last year, with a slide that began from a 2010 peak of 475,000 degree-seeking students. Revenue has slumped as well, and Phoenix in October shuttered more than half of its physical locations and eliminated 800 nonfaculty jobs. The university’s holding company, the Apollo Group, has been walloped on Wall Street. Share prices are down by 64 percent  over the last year.
But some of the university’s retrenchment has been intentional. A notable example is a new three-week noncredit orientation course. The course is a free, no-risk grace period for both students and the university to determine whether students are ready for college-level work. Even critics of for-profits have praised  the university for the attempt to improve student retention through a trial period, versions of which a few other for-profits  are offering.
Phoenix has also begun pushing an enhanced focus on career counseling, with a good chunk of that emphasis coming early in students’ time at the university. Like the orientation course, the career push is intended to improve results for students -- and for the university, which, like other for-profits, is facing intense scrutiny over its success in educating students.
The key questions Phoenix wants to help students answer early on about a university-issued credential are: “How much does it cost? And what are you going to get for it?” said Mark Brenner, an Apollo spokesman.
Faculty members receive extra training in order to work with students in the first-year sequence, with workshops in addition to the standard four-week certification process, said Paden. Some professors might not be selected to participate in that program based on their performance, Paden said. “We’re always looking to put the best faculty member in the classroom."
But fewer class sections are also a likely factor when professors get the boot, although university officials declined to discuss whether their faculty work force had shrunk. In a corporate earnings statement , released earlier this month, the university reported spending $21 million (or 4.7 percent) less on instruction and student advising.
“The reality is that some of them are seeing fewer sections,” said Paden.
In the meantime, Phoenix is trying to do a better job keeping professors in the loop. The administration began conducting a yearly faculty engagement survey in 2010, increasing the frequency of that survey to semiannually last year. Phoenix has also created quarterly and monthly publications aimed at professors.
“We’re really trying to step up our communication with our faculty,” Paden said. “The faculty members are the backbones of the institution.”
The professor who was recently not invited back – it wasn’t technically a termination or even a layoff – still gets communiqués from Phoenix. The professor would like to work for Phoenix again, but administrators have been apologetic in noting that they can’t say when, or if, that door will open again.