Friday the 13th, 2012 was truly an unlucky day for college faculty when Vice President Joe Biden characterized them as supposedly overpaid and a major reason for the high cost of college. In fact, the majority of college and university professors in America, commonly known as adjuncts, now work as perpetually temporary, part-time laborers for poverty level wages, little to no eligibility for paid sick leave or health benefits, and almost no access to the basic tools of the profession, such as offices in which to meet students or computers on which to do their work. One college administrator has even admitted that "Wal-Mart is a more honest employer of part-time employees than are most colleges and universities," and that higher education has created a faculty comprising “a highly educated working poor.”
Mr. Biden claimed that “[s]alaries for college professors have escalated significantly” to $100,000. In fact, what has escalated is the number of these so-called “part-time” faculty, who together with graduate students constitute over 60.5% of the teaching faculty (often 80% at community colleges). Their average pay is $25,000 or less per year for having the same teaching loads and teaching responsibilities as their full-time colleagues. The number of part time faculty has grown by more than 280% between 1975 and 2009.
While some adjuncts are high profile, highly compensated professionals teaching on the side like then-Senator Biden when he taught at Widener University Law School, the more common profile of the adjunct is someone who can only truly afford to teach if s/he has independent income and who would not be able to repay any student loan debt on an adjunct salary alone (or get access to loan forgiveness programs because adjuncts are classified as “part time”). Adjuncts are treated like academic day laborers (remember the Doonesbury cartoons in the 90s?) but unlike other seasonal workers they are often denied unemployment insurance in between academic terms.
Adjuncts cannot support a family or attain middle class status based on the compensation structure currently in place at colleges and universities, so most are dependent on their families for economic support, and some even rely on public assistance. Yet they are dedicated professionals charged with teaching critical first and second year and remedial courses, so this means the most vulnerable students are most likely to get the least supported professors.
If only Vice President Biden had gotten some facts to share with those concerned parents and students! According to the Delta Cost Project, a nonprofit organization that has studied college costs, “over time there has been a gradual shift of resources away from instruction and towards general administrative and academic infrastructure.” It also reports that “institutions enrolling the most students spend the least on their education.”
Fortunately the news from Pennsylvania is not all bad; Vice President Biden was right to say that “money is going into things that have nothing to do with student advancement.” And he was right to advise his audience to “challenge authority” and “not to accept orthodoxy” when faced with situations that need to be changed. Take his advice and sign this petition in order to demand that policymakers educate themselves about college faculty working conditions, work to stop colleges from exploiting faculty, and meet with advocates for adjunct faculty. Remember: faculty working conditions are student learning conditions!