Although adjuncts save institutions money, these untenured teachers have become so prevalent on campuses many ask whether they represent a crisis for colleges and universities.
Adjuncts constituted an estimated 40% of all instructors at U.S. higher education institutions in 2015. Those numbers saw a heavy increase between 2003 and 2013, according to Inside Higher Education, from:
- 45% to 65% at public bachelor-degree granting universities
- 52% to 60% at private bachelor-degree granting colleges
- 44% to 50% at public research universities
- 80% to 83% at community colleges
With enrollment declining and increased pressure to cut student costs, it’s easy to see why schools would lean on part-time faculty. Adjuncts earn $2400 on average per class, and they usually receive no health insurance or other benefits. They’re often last-minute hires, allowing departments to add classes as students sign up. Such flexibility can be a boon for smaller schools and community colleges, where students may still be undecided at the start of the semester. Tenured, full-time faculty demand preparation time. Adjuncts need classes to survive. Part-timers also teach topics tenured professors decline: general education classes, introductory courses and writing among others.
From an administrative perspective, there’s much to gain financially from staying with a faculty model that depends on part-timers — at least in the immediate. Hire a handful of high-profile tenured professors. Pay the tenure-tracked faculty a handsome salary with benefits. Feature them prominently in marketing material. Give the stars one or two classes per semester to teach. Hire part-time instructors to shoulder the bulk of the teaching burden. When enrollment dries up, send them on their way. There’s no risk of finding a department over-staffed.
However, critics of the adjunct model point out such a strategy may have a negative long-term impact.
Deferred savings — Studies reveal savings from adjunct hiring doesn’t go to funding either full-time faculty or students. It does little to aid actual teaching and learning at colleges and universities and nothing to lower tuition costs, which might entice more students to enroll. Rather, the saved money typically goes to student services, administrators and athletics.
Divided community — Most at-risk students say they feel a sense of alienation in school. Adjunct faculty often work on more than one campus. Many lack office space and few have a sense of belonging. Faculty with a greater attachment to campus are much more likely to help students feel at home on campus, too.
Scarred reputation — Students aren’t likely to stage an uprising over adjunct exploitation, but many in the education community and beyond have been discussing the unfair treatment of this corner of the labor market for years. Students expect teachers to be full-time professors. If they continue to hear reports about underpaid part-time instructors, they may start shopping for schools with a higher-ratio of tenured faculty.
Burn-out — Low pay, high demands, no feedback from superiors, no job security, no benefits — working under these conditions increases burnout, which means teachers don’t have time and energy for students they might wish they had. Instructors often devote spare hours to counseling students about academic choices — and about handling the stresses of college life. Those who are overly stressed themselves are less available. Faculty absence increases pressure on student services, which, in turn, increases pressure to spend money on administrative hiring. It becomes a vicious circle.
Minimal screening — Last-minute hiring means schools have no time to ferret out bad eggs. There’s also little oversight during the semester to determine whether teachers are performing well. Departments must rely on student reports of faculty work, which don’t arrive until the end of the term. I once worked at a school that didn’t complete a background check until I’d been teaching over six weeks. I passed, of course, but what would the HR department have done if I hadn’t? The semester was well underway, the class full and the students immersed. Ending the class would have brought chaos. Although most adjunct faculty do a good job, the school remains responsible for those who fail students.
Textbook chaos — Last-minute hiring means adjuncts aren’t able to order textbooks until well after bookstore adoption deadlines. When adoptions are late, students don’t have required books at the start of class. As a result, academics suffer and student retention drops.
Unions — Adjuncts are well aware of the difficult conditions in which they work. In many places, they’ve begun to unionize and bargain collectively for better treatment. The 30,000-strong faculty union at CUNY just won rights to three-year contracts. Grade strikes and walk-outs have not yet become commonplace, but they are on the rise. Even if a union doesn’t form at your school, collective bargaining may change the marketplace, causing the adjunct model to become more expensive.
Administrators might benefit from rethinking the adjunct model. It’s a good short-term solution for budget concerns, in much the same way picking up an extra class or two can solve a temporary problem for a teacher between jobs. However, it’s not a long-term solution. If a good college education depends on solid instruction, a foundation made of adjuncts may prove too shaky.