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Editorial: For adjunct professors, a hard job about to get harder



Last modified: Thursday, May 16, 2013
Adjunct professor. It’s one of the fastest growing and most poorly-paid occupations in America. Adjuncts, part-time employees paid a national average of $3,000 per course, often work for one or more colleges simultaneously. They rarely get office space or a phone, let alone health insurance, job security or other benefits. Few earn what could be considered a living wage, yet adjuncts now teach more than 70 percent of all college courses. Without them, higher education would be even less affordable. According to the American Association of University Professors, while a full professor at a public university with a doctorate earns $120,000 per year plus benefits, an adjunct, even one with a doctorate and a full course load, makes $20,000 with no benefits.

There is no easy answer to the adjunct conundrum. Online education that allows students to take classes taught by professors at elite colleges could ultimately shrink the need for adjuncts, but at the expense of student face-time with teachers. The bad lot of the part-time academic, who was hurt by the recession and government cuts to higher education far more than tenured faculty, is about to get much worse. In fact, one has to wonder whether the heavy reliance on adjuncts in American higher education is moral or sustainable.

Colleges have begun notifying adjuncts that their course load will be limited next fall in response to the Affordable Care Act. The law requires that employers with more than 50 part-time employees either provide health insurance to those who work 30 hours or more or pay a penalty.

By limiting the hours of adjuncts and hiring more part-time help to teach a course or two, colleges hope to escape both the penalty and the need to provide insurance coverage. For adjuncts, that means their income will go down at the same time they’ll be required to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty. Whether that move succeeds could depend on what ultimately counts as hours worked by adjuncts: class time alone or time spent preparing for courses, grading papers and meeting with students as well.

Concord Rep. Rick Watrous, a longtime adjunct professor of English at NHTI, described the plight of adjuncts in the April 7 Sunday Monitor. Because this is New Hampshire, where state support for higher education is the lowest in the land, adjunct pay is among the lowest in the nation. It’s not unusual to hear of an adjunct professor on food stamps.

Adjuncts also teach one-third to one-half or more of the courses at many four-year schools. Parents with pen poised over tuition checks are right to wonder if they’re really getting what they’re paying for, though the results, at least in the New Hampshire community college system, suggests they are.

Locally and nationally, adjunct professors – some insist on being called lecturers to underline their low status in academia – are banding together in unions in hopes of winning better pay and working conditions. The adjuncts in New Hampshire’s community college system did so two years ago, but they’ve so far failed to reach a contract agreement with the system’s administrators. In some states, there has been talk of a strike by adjuncts, an act that would cripple many colleges and disrupt the education of countless students.

Before that happens, it would be far better if state funding for higher education increases enough to treat adjuncts, if not well, at least fairly.