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October 9, 2017

How colleges are using adjunct instructors to rip off their students

Robert Niles
By Robert Niles

College in the United States is outrageously expensive, putting graduates tens of thousands of dollars in debt as they look for jobs and try to live on their own. "Financial aid" for parents often means having to take out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional loans... just a few years after many of them just finished paying off their own student loans.

Where does all that money go? Why is college so expensive? Well, I can tell you from personal experience that it's not because of the professors. There's a good chance that very little of the money you pay for a college class actually goes to the person teaching it.

Especially at the undergraduate level, many college classes are taught not by full-time faculty, but by part-time adjuncts. These instructors are paid by the class and get no benefits from the colleges and universities where they teach: no health insurance, no retirement, and certainly no job security. Since payment is by the class and not by the hour, many adjuncts are earning near or even less than minimum wage once you consider all the hours they spend preparing for classes, grading assignments, and meeting with students — in addition to actually teaching their course.

I taught as an adjunct instructor at the University of Southern California for six years. At one point, I did the math on my pay and the average USC tuition and figured out that my pay for teaching a course was less than the tuition that just one student was being charged for just that one course.

I went along with this because I had a full-time job in journalism at the time, and teaching as an adjunct in a local journalism school was considered an act of public service for senior reporters and editors at most papers. I wasn't excused from carrying any of my expected workload, but I know that teaching at USC always was considered a plus by my bosses in my annual job review. In effect, I was the pass through for a service donation from the Los Angeles Times to the USC journalism school.

But many adjuncts do not have a full-time employer effectively subsidizing their teaching job. These are people with graduate degrees who are left working for close to or even less than minimum wage, teaching kids who have put themselves and their families into enormous debt under the promise that getting a degree will help them land a better-paying job in life.

Irony, call on line one.

What it is like to work as an adjunct instructor? Here's the latest news story with the shocking details. Okay, the anecdote about an adjunct making money on the side as a hooker is pure is clickbait, but the point remains that almost no one is making a living wage as an adjunct working at a single college or university. These are low-paid, part-time jobs for people with the skill and knowledge to have earned an advanced degree. You've got to get another job or some outside subsidy (such as taxpayer-funded welfare) to be able to afford to do them.

Remember, colleges are not passing on their labor savings to students and their families when they hire and assign adjuncts to their classes. No one got a discount when taking a class with me instead of a tenured, full-time, fully-paid professor. Since the tuition charged just one student in my class more than covered my pay, where did the rest of my students' tuition money go?

Of course, some of my students would have been on financial aid. But much of what passes for financial aid from the nation's college and universities actually is just loans. The school is getting its full tuition charge up front, and a bank or the federal government will make a profit on the back end, as students and families eventually pay back all the tuition, plus interest, that they borrowed. Only when a student gets a grant does he or she not have to pay. Yet at many universities, those grant amounts are covered by donations — so the school still isn't actually cutting its revenue.

So where did the tuition money from those 14 other students in my course go? The school has to pay for the building in which I conducted my class, but almost every college or university class building has someone's name on it — usually the name of the donor who paid for its construction. I know that colleges and universities are enormously expensive institutions to run, with high costs to pay for research, administration, grounds, student services, and retired employees in addition to classroom instruction. But when only a tiny fraction of the money that a school charges a course's students goes to pay the cost of employing its instructor, its students effectively are subsidizing the other operations of the school.

Remember, these are often young people who are going to college to try to get the knowledge, training and credential that they need in order to get a job that pays a living wage. People who aren't yet at the point in life where they can pay their own way are the last people that we should be calling upon to subsidize anything.

I believe that one of the core reasons for free public education is to provide the knowledge and training that people need to support themselves and a family. A generation ago, maybe people could get a job and make a living on nothing more than the free education they got through high school. Almost no one who didn't inherit a lifetime of money and connections can do that today.

It's bad enough that we are charging young people for what has become an essential level of education. Can we at least not overcharge them in order to subsidize fat university administrations, long-retired employees, and research that provides hand-outs to industries from pharmaceuticals to defense contractors? Either cut tuition or give adjunct instructor a living raise. Or better yet, let's start subsidizing actual education instead of institutions, and do both.

Why do adjuncts put up with this crappy pay? For the same reason that many college graduates are taking part-time jobs after they graduate. Because that's the only option they have. Why should colleges invest in expensive full-time professors — who expect benefits, time for research, sabbaticals, job security, and retirement — when they can staff their classes with adjunct instructors at what might be an order of magnitude less cost? So long as students, donors, and the people who make up college rankings do not complain, who cares? It's more money left over for colleges to pay for everything else.

With colleges cranking out more graduates — including students earning master's and doctorate degrees — than industries are willing to hire full-time, the competition for even low-paying, part-time work can become intense. That's how college and universities can have the pick of their recent graduates and pay them next to nothing to teach their next crop of students who won't be able to find a full-time job when they graduate.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

While this system seems to be working for colleges and universities, it certainly is not working for students, graduates, and their families. Until more students, families, and college donors learn how little of the money they pay is actually going toward the people who teach their classes, colleges and universities will be able to continue playing this con.

So spread the word. Share this post, and others like it. College is supposed to be about discovering truths. So let's share this one. Too often, when a college class convenes these days, the people in that room — the students and their teacher — are not there as scholars gathering for an educational journey. Instead, they are there as suckers, to be taken for a ride.


© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.