We’re in the thick of summer, which means that across the country, thousands of prospective college students are descending on campuses for tours and information sessions. And, as a college instructor who’s spent nearly a decade teaching English and journalism, I have a request for these soon-to-be undergraduates and their parents: Ask the tour guide about the school’s use of adjunct labor. This may sound like a narrow and self-centered plea, but the current labor crisis in American higher education — which one Harvard instructor has called “The Great Shame of Our Profession” — affects far more than just my working conditions. It has major implications for a student’s education and the enormous sums you’ll pay for it.
The mere concept of an adjunct college instructor isn’t intrinsically rotten. There can be good, albeit rare, reasons for a teacher to be hired on a semester-by-semester, no-benefits basis. And as a working journalist who teaches classes about my area of professional practice, I mostly fall into that category. But as the American Association of University Professors reports, “While a small percentage of part-time faculty are specialists or practitioners of a profession such as law or architecture and teach a class on the side, this situation is the exception rather than the norm.” For decades, American colleges and universities have ramped up their reliance on nontenured faculty who lack many basic amenities like offices, health benefits, and year-to-year job security. As a sobering 2014 congressional report on the adjunct crisis noted, “In 1970, adjuncts made up 20 percent of all higher education faculty. Today, they represent half.” More recent reports indicate that nontenured instructors are now nearly three-quarters of all college faculty.
The stories behind these statistics are wrenching: tales of adjuncts on food stamps, or sleeping in cars, or teaching at four different schools and still failing to maintain a decent quality of life, or even dying of health conditions that might have been prevented by a full-time job and its benefits. The satirical Onion has chimed in with a piece headlined: “Adjunct Professor Hoping Some Student Leaves Behind Warm Pair Of Gloves Today.” Ask an adjunct, and I suspect they’ll tell you that the real scandal in American academia isn’t a handful of celebrities and mega-rich folks buying their way into elite schools; it’s a system that leaves approximately a million instructors sweating, struggling, stressed, and demoralized. And although schools are required to divulge some basic information about their operations to maintain non-profit status, the extent of a given school’s use of adjunct labor remains murky.
Which is why you should ask about it.
You can start by asking what percentage of a school’s course load is taught by adjuncts. And there are other important questions, too. Do the school’s adjuncts get health coverage? Do they have offices, or contracts that last more than a year? How do the school’s pay rates compare to those of other schools? (Personal example: at different schools, my pay has ranged from $3,885 to $10,000 for a single semester-long course.) Does the school have any plans to create new tenure-track jobs? And what explanation does the school give for its use of adjuncts?
These questions are more than an act of political theater on behalf of agitated part-time instructors. We know that during the same period the use of adjuncts rose precipitously, tuition also skyrocketed. And if this money isn’t paying the people who actually do the day-to-day teaching, where exactly is it going? A president’s compensation package? An ever-growing roster of six-figure-salaried administrators? Renovations at the football stadium? The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about the priorities of the school you’re considering.
Unfortunately, it will also tell you about the quality of the education. I am, with all modesty, a great teacher. And the adjuncts I know are as smart and well-trained and dedicated as any academics I’ve met. (One could even argue that we have reason to be more committed and prepared than tenured faculty because of our ever-looming professional guillotine.) But we’re hampered by numerous factors outside of our control. As the table of contents of that 2014 congressional report explains, those factors include: “low pay at a piece rate,” “long hours and harried commutes from one job to another,” limited “access to employer-provided benefits, like health care and retirement” “job instability and unpredictable course loads,” and “problems with career advancement and professional support.” Anyone preparing to plunk down $100,000 or more deserves to know if teachers are affected by these conditions.
Americans today are awash in so-called “ethical” consumer options, from ethical food, to ethical tourism, to ethical clothing, to ethical investing. And perhaps people assume that, because of all of the history and prestige and ivy-covered brick, colleges are behaving in a way that conscientious consumers would expect. Those of us who teach at those schools are under no such illusion, and we’ve tried to draw attention to the problem with all manner of protest. (In some instances, students have even joined walkout protests.) And yet, it seems that the consumer activism that has targeted companies like Uber, Facebook, and Nike has yet to arrive on college campuses.
Asking questions during campus visits is just a modest starting point. Maybe state departments of labor ought to give highly visible grades to schools, akin to the health grades you see on the windows of New York City restaurants. Maybe well-heeled alumni can stipulate that decent conditions for teachers are a prerequisite for their donations. And maybe we adjuncts could step up our game, too: starting a labor-centric version of Ratemyprofessors.com, where we rank our treatment at different schools so students and parents are more informed. We’re going to need a lot of changes to address a problem this large, complex, and entrenched.
But I know this: if I were about to send my kid to college, or if I were paying for school myself, a school’s labor policies would be a major factor in my decision. And, maybe, just maybe, if enough of today’s customers start asking tough questions, and factoring the answers into their decisions, schools will begin to adopt employment practices worthy of the lofty ideals in their mottos.
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist and adjunct college English instructor based in Providence, Rhode Island.