NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Among higher education’s dirty little secrets are the working conditions of its classroom labor force. The majority of non-tenured adjunct professors work for the rough equivalent of what they'd make in the fast-food industry.
According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), non-tenure track positions of all types now account for 76% of all instructional staff appointments in American higher ed. Roughly half teach part time. Between 1991 and 2011, the number of part-time faculty more than doubled.
To make matters worse, rank-and-file adjuncts are struggling to pay off student loans with their low-wage jobs. A Senate bill introduced by Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) would make part-timers eligible to participate in the Federal student loan forgiveness program available to public servants.
“Part-time faculty like adjunct professors, who typically receive fewer benefits and lower pay than other educators, often carry a large amount of burdensome student loan debt,” Franken said in a statement last week. “By expanding a key loan forgiveness program, our bill will help these professors cut down on their debt load.”
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is designed to encourage graduates to enter public service careers by offering student loan forgiveness for eligible federal loans. Graduates with jobs in fields like public health, the non-profit sector and the military qualify for the program. Although many educators may also qualify – including full-time faculty at public universities and some part-time faculty at community colleges – faculty members who only work part-time are not eligible. The Franken-Durbin bill is designed to change that.
Alyssa Picard, spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) said, "We are on the record as supporting this bill," as are the National Education Association, the Service Employees International Union, the U.S. Student Association and other groups.
The AFT also suggests that parents of college applicants find out the percentage of contingent faculty a school has and how they are treated. In its Just Ask brochure, the AFT suggests arriving for campus visits with questions about the likelihood that first- or second-year students will be taught by full-time, permanent faculty. The AFT also suggests asking questions about adjunct pay and whether or not they have office hours--a leading question, since adjuncts typically don't have offices.
Selective schools with bulge bracket endowments normally have the best tenure-to-adjunct ratio. The March 5 Yale Daily News, for example, reported that Yale's Faulty of Arts and Science had 462 tenured or tenure-track faculty and 15 adjuncts, about 4% of the total. According to the Senate Health, Education, Pension and Labor Committee's 2013 survey of for-profit colleges, 80% of the faculty at bankrupt Corinthian Colleges were adjuncts. But that's not far from the 76% national average cited by the AAUP.
According to an April report from the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, 25% of part-time college faculty and their family receive public assistance, such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, cash welfare or the Earned Income Tax Credit. The ranks of the working poor not only include fast food workers, but a lot of people with MAs and Ph.ds.