Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Just-in-Time Professor: A Staff Report Summarizing eForum Responses on the Working Conditions of Contingent Faculty in Higher Education

“The post-secondary academic workforce has undergone a remarkable change over the last several decades. The tenure-track college professor with a stable salary, firmly grounded in the middle or upper-middle class, is becoming rare. Taking her place is the contingent faculty: non-tenure-track teachers, such as part-time adjuncts or graduate instructors, with no job security from one semester to the next, working at a piece rate with few or no benefits across multiple workplaces, and far too often struggling to make ends meet. In 1970, adjuncts made up 20 percent of all higher education faculty. Today, they represent half.1

“Increasing the number of Americans who obtain a college degree or other post-secondary credentials is a key to growing and strengthening the middle class and ensuring the country’s global competitiveness. Yet the expanding use of contingent faculty to achieve this goal presents a paradox. These instructors are highly educated workers who overwhelmingly have post­graduate degrees. They perform work critical to our national efforts to lift the next generation’s economic prospects.

“In 2009, CNN Money ranked college professor as the third best job in America, citing increasing job growth prospects.2 The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts post ­secondary teachers as having faster than average employment growth over the next decade.3 Having played by the rules and obtained employment in a highly skilled, in-demand field, these workers should be living middle-class lives. But, as will be seen in this report, many often live on the edge of poverty.

“More than one million people are now working as contingent faculty and instructors at U.S. institutions of higher education, providing a cheap labor source even while students’ tuition has skyrocketed. Traditionally, adjuncts were experienced professionals who were still working in or recently retired from their industry outside of academia, with time on their hands to teach a class or two at the university or community college.

“Adjunct work supplemented their income; teaching was not their main job. Such adjuncts still exist. But national trends indicate that schools are increasingly relying on adjuncts and other contingent faculty members, rather than full-time, tenure-track professors, to do the bulk of the work of educating students. Today, being a part-time adjunct at several schools is the way many instructors cobble together full-time employment in higher education.

“In November 2013, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats launched an eForum to invite contingent faculty and instructors around the country to comment via email on their working conditions, how those conditions affect their ability to earn a living and have a successful career, and how those conditions may affect students and their attainment of educational goals.

“Over the course of six weeks, the eForum received 845 responses. Participants hailed from 41 of 50 states. Some have been working as contingent faculty for more than thirty years, while others have just begun, with only one semester under their belt. They are employed by private and public two- and four-year institutions…


“[There is] a growing, visible trend that dims many workers’ prospects for stable, full-time employment…

“Generally, adjunct work is piece work. These contingent faculty usually are paid a piece rate, a fixed amount of compensation for each unit produced, regardless of how much time it takes to produce. In this case, the unit of production is a college course…

Many eForum respondents described daunting workloads. Because they are paid based on courses taught, making ends meet requires a complicated juggling of multiple courses, often at multiple schools, sometimes with additional non-academic jobs squeezed in between…

“Access to employer-provided benefits, like health care and retirement, is rare…
“To be an adjunct faculty member is to have almost no job stability. Many are hired on a semester-by-semester contract, with their assignments ‘the last to be confirmed and the first to be changed at the last moment…’

“Many contingent faculty take part-time employment because it is the only job available in their desired field, hoping it will be a temporary detour on the way to full-time status. This detour, more often than not, becomes permanent… 
“Adjuncts are highly skilled: The eForum found that, despite their low pay and lack of benefits, contingent faculty possess impressive educational backgrounds, often with many years of teaching and industry experience…
“Impact on teaching: These trends are not without consequence. Because many eForum respondents are juggling several courses and jobs, many expressed that they do not spend adequate time on class preparation and office hours. These faculty members worry that students are negatively impacted because they are unable to access professors who, for example, may have to sprint out of the office to drive an hour or longer to teach their next class…

“Contingent faculty have turned to organizing with labor unions…


“By no means comprehensive or scientific, the eForum provided an alarming snapshot of life for contingent faculty. While the occupation of ‘college professor’ still retains a reputation as a middle-class job, the reality is that a growing number of people working in this profession fill positions not intended to provide the stability, pay, or benefits necessary for a family’s long-term economic security. Whether some adjunct professors piece together a living from their teaching job or only use it to supplement a more stable primary career elsewhere, many contingent faculty might be best classified as working poor.31

“As one respondent put it: ‘[T]he bulk of instructors at the college level fulfilling this goal [of educating students] are compensated less than their peers despite equal expertise, are given no benefits despite obvious need, and are continually stripped of their voice and dignity by a situation where they must overwork themselves or find a new career.’

“Their story is another example of the shrinking middle class and another data point in the widening gap between rich and poor. Policy solutions for part-time workers more generally, such as the Part-Time Workers’ Bill of Rights, would help address some of the economic security issues these faculty face.

“While these individuals worry about their own futures and how to provide for their families, they are equally distressed by what they believe is a shortchanging of students who pay ever-increasing tuition to attend their courses. The link between student outcomes and contingent faculty working conditions—not just the adjuncts’ schedules and compensation but the respect and professional support they receive from their schools—deserves serious scrutiny from the Committee and other policymakers around the country, as well as from institutions of higher education themselves.

“Researchers have pointed to various causes of the increased reliance on contingent faculty. Some argue that reduced state funding for higher education has pushed schools to both raise tuition and cut costs, particularly labor costs. Others argue that institutions have actually de-prioritized spending on academics in favor of other categories of spending. Indeed, the proportion of colleges’ total expenditures attributable to teacher salaries declined five percent from 1987 to 2005.32

“In today’s lean era, schools have often chosen to balance their budgets on the backs of adjuncts. Outsized administrator salaries, marketing operations, and campus frills recently have received significant attention. Increased budget transparency for institutions of higher education would be a critical step in understanding the nature and necessity of this now-pervasive labor practice and whether and how it may be changed.”

1 Adrianna Kazar, “Changing Faculty Workforce Models,” TIAA-CREF Institute, 2013.
2 Best Jobs in America, CNN Money. 2009. Available at:
3 Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Available at

31 Gary Rhoades, “Adjunct Professors are the New Working Poor,” CNN, September 25, 2013. 
32 Jane V. Wellman, Donna M. Desrochers, and Colleen M. Lenihan, “The Growing Imbalance: Recent Trends in U.S. Post-secondary Education Finance,” Delta Cost Project, 2008.

For the Complete Report, Click Here.

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