The recent implementation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has had an unfortunate impact in the world of higher education. Reacting to a provision that mandates employer-provided healthcare for employees who work 30+ hours per week, many colleges & universities have cut adjunct hours in order to remain in compliance. This has caused further hardship on adjunct faculty, an already struggling segment of the educational workforce.
Low-paid, part-time adjunct faculty represent a growing majority of educators in higher education. In 1969, 18.5% of professors were part time. From 1975 to 2011, that number has grown by 300%. Today, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, part-time professorships represent 75.5% of educators, or 1.3 million people. One big motivator for this shift has been cost; it’s simply easier to fill courses with part-time faculty instead of full time, salaried professors with full benefits. With this trend maintaining traction for more than 40 years, it is no huge surprise that the Obamacare coverage mandate has only added fuel to the fire.
At the Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, David Hoovler, the executive assistant to the president, says it was “simply unaffordable” to expand health coverage to would-be qualified adjuncts, although the college would have preferred to provide access. CCAC has an annual budget near $109 million and providing health benefits to the ~400 eligible part-time employees would have cost the school upwards of $6 million (Dunn, 2013). However, it can also be argued that trying to live on an adjunct salary is also “simply unaffordable.” Of 152 respondents who provided their estimated annual teaching salary in an Adjunct E-Forum Report, the average was $24,926, with the median at $22,041. In contrast, the median pay for a full time faculty member is $47,500. In order to garner comparable wages, an adjunct would have to teach nearly seventeen courses per year. To put this in perspective, researchers consider a full course load to be eight courses in an academic year.
One educator reports “My university pays $2100 per class which means even if I work at 100% – 10 classes per academic year – I would only make $21,000,” a salary that hovers right above the poverty level. In the Adjunct E-Forum Report, one educator tells her story of survival on an adjunct salary;
“Because I was also the sole support of my two children (both of whom are gifted and honors students, I am proud to report), I relied on Medicaid to pay for the medical bills of my daughter. And, during the time I taught at the community college, I earned so little that I sold my plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for her daycare costs. Seriously, my plasma paid for her daycare because I taught English as adjunct faculty.”
The big problem with tying medical coverage to adjunct hours is that administrators must also consider the time spent prepping for classes, grading assignments, attending meetings, and communicating with students. With the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, the IRS has advised schools to calculate total hours worked by accounting for an additional 1.25 hours of outside work for every hour spent in the classroom. Prior to this recommendation, many schools acted preemptively to avoid taking the risk that an adjunct would go above 30 hours per week, enacting blanket measures to slash schedules and cap adjunct course loads.
With so many adjuncts and recent Ph.D. graduates trying to forge careers in academics, the supply of teachers will continue to outstrip demand. Schools are already extremely motivated to hire these extremely well-qualified professionals as cheap part-time labor. Once hired, adjuncts are often doomed to a life of poverty and uncertainty, where their classes can be canceled and their livelihood compromised at a moment’s notice. “There are really no opportunities for advancement because there [are] very few full-time opportunities available, most likely because the schools are using more and more adjunct instructors instead of adding the higher-paid full-time positions (with or without tenure),” reported one educator.
As a result of their permanent part-time status, many adjuncts choose to teach classes at multiple schools in order to make ends meet – and even a crushing workload doesn’t guarantee a livable wage. “I was teaching five classes at three different campuses. I was quickly going broke and my student debt was still growing,” said Gillian Mason (Lewin), a former adjunct with a Ph.D. in Literature from Boston University.
With the Affordable Care Act bringing this issue to a tipping point, adjuncts are looking for ways to advocate for change. Some activists are looking at unionization, while others have already taken their case to Congress. After hearing congressional testimony from adjuncts, California Representative George Miller said of adjuncts, “You look at their credentials, their background and experience—there has to a conscious decision to treat them this way,” he says. “Then you start to look at it through a student’s eyes, and then you think, I’m getting a person who’s stressed out, maybe just drove three hours to get to my class, doesn’t have time to see me afterward, and you think, Wait a minute, there’s some false advertising going on here.”
The adjunct situation is far from over, so we will be certain to keep you posted on the latest news regarding acts of congress, unionization, adjunct activism, and school reactions. How has your school reacted to the roll out of the Affordable Care Act? Do you think it has affected your school’s treatment of adjunct faculty?