Colleges Survive on Exploitation

Colleges love to tell you how great and wonderful they are. And, indeed, great and wonderful things happen on most (perhaps all) college campuses. Intellect is stimulated, curiosity is nourished, and inspiration is given and received. Yet all is not as wonderful as it’s cracked up to be.

If you want to discern the true character of a person or institution, look at how they treat people. Here is how many (if not the vast majority) of colleges are treating a certain class of employees: adjunct instructors (those who teach by the course and are not on the tenure track).

I’m a part-time adjunct, but this doesn’t concern me. Teaching isn’t my profession. I do it for fun at a stage of my life when salary and career don’t matter. Plus, this is my last semester. I’ll be quitting teaching to free up my time for other things.

This concerns the others. The ones who need the income. Whose life calling is teaching. Who rely on their work as a means of livelihood.

Many are young, having recently graduated from a university Ph.D. program and now are looking to gain entry in the academy (the higher ed system). Some have toiled for six to 10 years gaining the necessary academic credentials. Some are deeply in debt, having had to borrow much along the way.

There are older adjuncts, too. An 83-year-old adjunct at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh died several years ago having taught at the university for 25 years as an adjunct, with no health insurance and making only $10,000 a year. Her story received national attention.

Recently, I did the math to satisfy my own curiosity. I teach at a Front Range Community College in Fort Collins. It’s inexpensive for the students, costing only $410.70 for a three-credit course (assuming you’re a Colorado resident). A full class for most adjuncts would be 24 students, which, when you include the state subsidy, yields $15,257 of revenue for the school (more if there are any nonresident students in the class). Of that, the college pays the instructor only 16.8% of the revenue — only $2,343 (less than 1/5th of what tenured faculty at some colleges would be paid to teach the same course). The school keeps the remainder ($12,914), plus the other revenue it receives from the state and federal government, as well as benefactors, as consideration for teaching the students.

The ratio is worse at many other schools — those that charge their students far more than $400 per course. Adjuncts at those institutions receive less than 16.8% of the revenue they generate in their courses. (As a side note, when a school’s expenses for items other than teachers consumes more than 80% of its revenue, something isn’t right.)

My first thought is, why would anyone pursue such a career? I wouldn’t. If an adjunct at my college teaches the same number of courses professors at Bridgewater College teach (the college I served as president), their annual income would be just $18,744. Those are poverty wages.

I raised this issue with our college’s president, to no avail, of course. In essence, he said he was concerned but that it was more important to keep tuition low for the students. I wonder how bad it would be if he weren’t concerned. (Probably no worse.)

But I wasn’t surprised. I already knew that most college administrators and trustees, and most tenured faculty, didn’t give a hoot about the plight of the adjuncts. In their minds, if someone is willing to work for those wages, then it’s not a problem for the school; rather, it’s a financial windfall.

But it isn’t right. The system (higher ed) is taking advantage of people. And, yes, I realize that they’re not holding a gun to anyone’s head. But fairness and justice aren’t determined by what one can get away with.

In this case, is it fair and right for a full-time teacher to be paid $18,744 a year, while others (administrators and some tenured faculty) receive six-figure salaries and still others (coaches in major sports programs) receive eight-figure incomes? I think not. But I also think that, at most colleges and universities, it won’t change. You see, most of these places don’t have nearly as much character as they tout.

Which brings me to the point of this post, Vera. I want to share with you the same advice I’ve given to students who are considering this career path.

It’s possible to make really good money teaching. But to do that you have to secure a position at a wealthy suburban school district or a tenure track position at a research university (a real one, not one of the pseudo research universities that are more college than university) or prestigious college with a large endowment (there are very few). Let’s assume you’re drawn to higher ed and not primary or secondary education.

Unless you’re in one of the few fields in which demand for talent outstrips supply (e.g., Ph.D.’s in accounting), only pursue the career if you have your eyes wide open to your odds and are willing to take the risk, knowing that it might prove to be a failed venture.

The fact of the matter is, the odds aren’t good. In fact, in many fields, they are very, very poor. That’s not to say no one is hired. Some are. And as more and more Boomers retire, they will be more openings. But it’s still likely that the supply of talent will far exceed available opportunities, particularly as educational alternatives continue to spring up and alternative credentialing options are added.

So you have to better your odds. The way to do that is to earn your Ph.D. from one of the top-ranked programs in your field. If you can’t get into one of those highly regarded programs, rethink your plans.

It’s easy to spot the top programs. All you have to do is look at the credentials of the faculty at the top colleges and universities. What universities granted their Ph.D.s? Rankings also are widely available.

Also realize there is a pecking order in academia. If you want to reach the pinnacle (in prestige and income), you’d better make a name for yourself, and that means some significant research and publications. If that’s not your cup of tea (it certainly wouldn’t be mine), then it’s likely you’ll end up at a community college or unranked college (not university) that doesn’t require its professors to be scholars. Which is fine if teaching is what you want to do. Just know that others don’t value it much, so you won’t be well compensated. But you can do O.K. even at a lesser school, provided you land a tenure-track position and live within your means.

But, again, landing a tenure-track position won’t be easy. Due to the high cost of such positions per student and limited dollars of revenue a professor at a college can generate, the number of these positions likely will continue to dwindle. It’s also likely a greater number of colleges (not research universities) will jettison the tenure system, which is proving to be ill-suited to the needs of 21st-century institutions.

In closing, I want to return to the treatment of adjuncts by our colleges and universities. Put simply, it isn’t right. Moreover, when the institutions tout their “character” and “higher purpose” in their flowery (yet hollow) rhetoric (mainly for recruiting and fundraising purposes), it’s like rubbing salt into the wounds of the adjuncts.

Character demands fair treatment of all. And the fact that it’s a nonprofit that’s perpetrating the injustice doesn’t make it right.

(P.S. If there is a union out there who can use the help of a former college president to organize adjuncts and other non-tenure track instructors, please don’t hesitate to call.)


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