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Discussion: What’s driving the need for cheap college labor?

May 27, 2014 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

It’s a little known fact outside of academia, but an overwhelming majority of higher education instructors are adjunct faculty, generally making little more than $3,000-$4,000 per course. Nationally, nearly 80 percent of these teachers receive no health insurance through the college and rarely accrue retirement benefits. This is a dramatic shift from the early 1970s, when the majority of professors were full-time tenured or on a tenure track.

Adjunct faculty at three Minnesota schools—Hamline, Macalester and St. Thomas—are currently trying to unionize in hopes of gaining more economic security.

How can we balance delivering a high-quality education with ensuring all college employees are fairly compensated?

What’s changing in education that’s driving this increased reliance on meager faculty salary?

Today between 8-9:30, adjunct faculty members and a former college administrator, join us for a broad discussion on higher education finance.


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  • Linda Krug says:

    May 27, 2014 at 7:55 am

    From 1998-2009 I served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota Duluth.  I hired plenty of adjunct faculty, the lion’s share of whom were members of the faculty bargaining unit (if they were more than 35% time).

    • Marguerite says:

      May 27, 2014 at 8:04 am

      Hi Linda.  Do adjuncts have to part of the bargaining unit?

    • Marguerite says:

      May 27, 2014 at 8:09 am

      Hi Linda! I am wondering if all adjunct faculty members that you hire must be part of the bargaining unit.

      • jeff kolnick says:

        May 27, 2014 at 8:16 am

        I cannot speak for U of M Duluth, but in the MnSCU system, contingent faculty are all int he bargaining unit.

  • jeff kolnick says:

    May 27, 2014 at 8:01 am

    This essay seems highly relevant.

    • Lucas Franco says:

      May 27, 2014 at 8:29 am

      Very informative article. Thanks for sharing.

    • R. Lloyd says:

      May 27, 2014 at 8:54 am

      “Like so many others in this post-industrial economy, in some sense, we are all also service workers…”

      This quote is from the article posted by jeff kolnick, listed above.
      It looks at the big picture of workers, the corporate outlook on workers.

      I’d like to add to the discussion the following:
      It seems that colleges/universities *believe* that they need to compete successfully for “the best students” by building sparkling new students centers and facilities.  This is what I’ve heard administrators say in my work as an adjunct.  Ask yourself, which do students need more?  Do students need soft chairs and picture windows more than well-paid instructors?  Ask yourself, what does a budget say about a school’s priorities?  Ask yourself, if you went to college, where did you study?

      • Sarah says:

        May 27, 2014 at 12:04 pm

        Good questions! I spent over ten years as an adjunct faculty member for MNSCU, and was always part of the union. Although that did not provide job security, necessarily, it did ensure better pay and benefits than many adjuncts I knew who worked for St. Thomas and the U of M, etc.

        I went to graduate school at St. Thomas, which I remember very fondly. However, I was struck when, last year, I took my middle schooler to a swim meet there. The new athletic/student center was astounding in its size, scope, and overall “glamour,” I would say. My 12 year old immediately said, “I want to go to school here!” Of course she did; it looked like a luxury resort. My concern is that creating flashy, luxury amenities for college students is heavily skewing our priorities to things that won’t benefit them for the long-term. I agree that students would benefit much more from having well-trained, equally and highly valued instructors and professors—not to mention lower tuition costs and more accessibility to college.

        • R. Lloyd says:

          June 4, 2014 at 4:40 pm

          Response to Sarah: 
          Thank you for your response to my question/s. 

          “My concern is that creating flashy, luxury amenities for college students is heavily skewing our priorities to things that won’t benefit them for the long-term. I agree that students would benefit much more from having well-trained, equally and highly valued instructors and professors—not to mention lower tuition costs and more accessibility to college.” 

          Thank you! 


          Submit A Comment

  • Marguerite Spencer says:

    May 27, 2014 at 8:03 am

    Hi!  I am a senior adjunct at the University of St. Thomas.  I have been here in some capacity since 1990.  I have been full-time for many years.  I have no benefits and my pay is low.  I am recently divorced and working pay check to pay check, paying my own health insurance of nearly $300/month.  I can’t afford dental insurance or disability.

  • Joe says:

    May 27, 2014 at 8:03 am

    Welcome to Tuesday Talk. Marguerite Spencer, our adjunct faculty guest, will be joining us shortly.

  • Brendan McManus says:

    May 27, 2014 at 8:05 am

    One of the things driving the “need” for cheap college labor is the availability of cheap college labor. Programs and their faculty have for decades trained far more people to be college faculty than there are positions as college faculty. Fundamentally, the problem of adjunctification is a problem created in the first instance by the professoriate.

    • Marguerite says:

      May 27, 2014 at 8:25 am

      I find that this claim is inflated.  Universities want adjunct faculty to keep costs down.  As long as there is a dmand, a supply is necessary.  It is not an issue of the proressoriate first, but of university administrations.

    • Josh says:

      May 27, 2014 at 8:26 am

      It seems pretty drastic that an increase in supply (which I have not seen actually proven anywhere..) would crater demand to such a point that a previously (upper) middle class job have become essentially a temp job in two decades. If your theory of over training is true, maybe positions become more competitive. But a majority of new hires having no benefits and are paid what can amount to minimum wage if they are doing their jobs and working with students outside of “class hours,” which every faculty member does?

      That to me is a clear decision by the powers-that-be to save money in their budget by gutting labor costs.

  • Joe says:

    May 27, 2014 at 8:07 am

    Marguerite, tell us a little about why the union drive is important, and what you hope faculty will gain from it.

    • Marguerite says:

      May 27, 2014 at 8:17 am

      The National Labor Relations Act guarantees employees the right to unionize in order to secure rights vis a visa an employer who holds power over them.  I hope to secure fair pay, job security, benefits, retirement and professional development funds.  When my personal financial situation fell apart, my request for these rights was not granted.

      • jeff kolnick says:

        May 27, 2014 at 8:30 am

        There has been, since the 1980s, a successful push by a significant element of the business elite of this nation to turn all workers into contingent workers. Defined benefit pensions have been gutted and been replaced defined contribution plans that put the burden of retirement on the worker and not the employer. There is still a strong push to privatize Social Security and Medicare. Jobs with the protection of a union contract have declined massively from about one third in 1945 to 24% in 1979 to 11.3% today (only 6.7% of private sector workers). There is an attempt now to go after highly skilled organized workers (public school teachers, university professors and orchestra musicians) to utterly destroy the labor movement and eliminate any remaining claim of workers to secure employment and retirement.

  • jeff kolnick says:

    May 27, 2014 at 8:08 am

    These are also significant and perhaps the places to start this discussion:

  • Lucas says:

    May 27, 2014 at 8:10 am

    As a second year PhD student at the U in political science entering a very tough job market in the next few years, I really appreciate this conversation. I have heard from many grads of the program how difficult it is to get by as an adjunct.

    • Marguerite says:

      May 27, 2014 at 8:43 am

      Adjunct faculty in the liberal arts are sometimes paid less than faculty in the business departments.  However, many business adjuncts know that administrations retain unfair labor practices.  At least one faculty in the busniess department signed a card out of solidarity, even though benefits are of now significance to him.  His statement to the university administration stated in part:
      “It is an issue of value contribution, economic/financial fairness, and social justice. Adjunct faculty contribute significant value to the university in general, and to students specifically. There is no justification whatsoever for an institution of higher learning…to aspire to be a top caliber university while at the same time paying close to poverty-level wages to a large group of its educators…I do not believe that adversarial management/labor relations work well in the long run, but at the same time, when there is such a clear and compelling case for change…then action needs to be taken by the people.”

  • Roger Johnson says:

    May 27, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Those of us faculty who taught in the community colleges during the 60s experienced what we came to call “collective begging.” We went before the board authorities and tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to garner greater compensation.  Our so-called “welfare committee” was essentially a begging group.  Recognizing the one sidedness of such labor relations, the State Legislature passed PELRA in 1971, and amended it in 1974.  It’s goal was to level the playing field a bit, although the power still lies in the employer.  During 1970 - 1973 I, along with a team of colleagues, negotiated the first statewide contract in higher education in the nation.  We thought we were really something!  But through the ensuing years I kept track of our contractual salary gains and 25 years later compared them with what we could have gained if the State just chosen to keep our salaries up with annual cost-of-living bumps.  The COLA bumps beat out negotiated salaries, I’m sorry to say, inasmuch as I am an advocate for true labor negotiations—but for other than salaries.  My advice is to unionize all labor.  Adjunct faculty need recognition and economic justice.  But I’d further suggest they (and all higher ed. Faculty) seek legislation guaranteeing COLA increases as the salary component of any labor contract.  In that manner the adjunct faculty can be conjoined with full time faculty in one labor contract.  They do the same work.  They ought to be in the same bargaining unit.

  • M.C. Freiberg says:

    May 27, 2014 at 8:30 am

    If adjuncts want benefits and higher pay, rather than forming a union, which the expenses will inevitably trickle down to the student, why not just do what is necessary to work as a professor?  Has the term adjunct changed since my college days? I remember it to mean the person was a volunteer with a stipend. If the term hasn’t changed it would seem the simple solution would be to stop volunteering your time and get a full time job. I hope that you all can see the wisdom in protecting the integrity of full professors while continuing to find ways to make higher education affordable. With that, my hope is that adjuncts who seek to unionize will instead focus their energies on taking active steps to enhance employability in a genuine way… as most of society has to do to get better jobs. Good luck!

    • Josh says:

      May 27, 2014 at 8:37 am

      “Has the term adjunct changed since my college days?”

      It seems like it has. It now is a term for non tenure track faculty, which essentially means they are doing the same work as professors have always done, but with low pay, no benefits, and no job security. It has now become the case where adjunct professors make up the majority of new hires at many schools.

    • Marguerite says:

      May 27, 2014 at 8:56 am

      This comment suggests a lack of understanding of how the education profession works.  Universities want adjuncts to keep costs down, as I mentioned earlier.  Just as in the medical and legal professions (e.g., through PAs and permanent non-partner track attornyes) employers seek ways to lower their costs be supporting less costly employees.

      Also, your comment ignores the fact that many adjunct faculty hold the same credentials as “professors” and are held accountable for quality in the same way by both the administration and student body.  Some universities even grant senior status to adjuncts through a semi-tenure process, but provide no accompanying benefits.

      • M.C. Freiberg says:

        May 27, 2014 at 9:51 am

        You are correct in your assessment of my ignorance. I appreciate the time you have taken to increase my understanding of how the education profession works.  I do have many years of personal experience in both private non profit community mental health as well as in the hospital system.  I get how doing more with less, the stress associated with not knowing if my job would be cut, and the conflict between wanting to be compensated for my education and experience while essentially relying on federal dollars to fund my position in the social services field. 
        Perhaps you would help me understand where higher compensation for adjuncts would come from?

        • Marguerite says:

          May 27, 2014 at 10:23 am

          Thank you for taking time to listen and learn, M.C.  This is not always the result of a critical comment.  I apologize if my tone was inappropriate.

    • jeff kolnick says:

      May 27, 2014 at 8:56 am

      In 2012, according to the New Faculty Majority
       75.5% of college faculty are now off the tenure track, meaning they have NO access to tenure.
       This represents 1.3 million out of 1.8 million faculty members.
       Of these, 700,000 or 70% are so-called part-time, AKA “adjunct.”
       That’s almost half of the entire college faculty population.

    • Tom Hergert says:

      May 27, 2014 at 9:00 am

      The problem is not with the adjuncts. Many, if not most, are qualified to be full-time faculty, sometimes more qualified than some full-timers. The problem is that administrations at all levels are reluctant to create the permanent, full-time, tenure-track positions that would be necessary to cover all the needs of the institutions. I’ve worked at public institutions ( 2 & 4-year) and at a private university. The reluctance seems universal. As long as adjuncts and other contingent faculty are so much cheaper to hire, this will no doubt continue.

  • Jim says:

    May 27, 2014 at 8:38 am

    As coordinator of a growing number of social sciences and humanities courses at a small college in MN, I have participated in the hiring of four adjunct professors in the past five years.  At the time of each hiring, our school had no budget for even half-time faculty with benefits.  After an adjunct professor has joined our staff, however, I have let each one know that if he or she is interested (most have been), my dean and I would be making decisions to continue building our program and working with the adjunct folks to add to their responsibilities so that they might achieve at least half-time status.  This is in lieu of continuing to depend solely upon adjunct faculty.

    We are investing in longer-term relationships with fewer professional educators.  In the years we have been building our program, we have converted one adjunct to full-time status and one to half-time status, both with benefits.  Two more of our adjunct faculty continue working with other schools and in private practice.  As was the case with the initial adjunct faculty, each of the current adjunct instructors is participating in the creation of a new course, addressing both our school’s as well as the adjunct’s needs.  We are quite selective when we hire, and adjunct faculty helping us create new courses have been virtually free to build “their courses.”  Morale has been high.  There is no realistic substitute for setting up structure that encourages strong faculty investment in teaching.

    • Marguerite says:

      May 27, 2014 at 9:03 am

      I believe that these are steps in the right direction.  However, this approach appears to be the exception rather than the rule in the colleges in the Twin Cities, as unionizing efforts have reached the election stage at three of them. 

      I wonder whether your full-time adjuncts are considered on par with permanent or tenure track ones.  I also wonder whether the staus of half-time adjuncts is codified in some way.

  • Joe says:

    May 27, 2014 at 8:38 am

    Here are two articles via Peter Rachleff, a long-time Macalester College labor history professor

  • Peter Rachleff says:

    May 27, 2014 at 8:45 am

      A decade ago, scholar/activist Biju Mathew, in his brilliant book, TAXI! CABS AND CAPITALISM IN NEW YORK CITY, analyzed the transformation of the taxi industry from a unionized employer/employee relationship to a veritable “Dodge City” of independent contractors, responsible for insurance, gas, tolls, etc., even if they do not bring in sufficient revenue to cover their costs, as the product of capitalist neo-liberalism—a system which accumulates wealth at one pole while piling the burdens onto the shoulders of those least able to bear them.  Capitalist neo-liberalism has now spread its tentacles, its structures, its dynamics into the hallowed halls of academe.  More than forty university presidents now receive salaries of more than $1,000,000 per year!  NYU builds a new campus in Abu Dhabi, where the construction labor is performed by indentured workers, virtual slaves, from south Asia and the Phillipines, and they pay Bill Clinton to present their first graduating class’s commencement speech, assuring his listeners that NYU means well.  Colleges and universities run up debt for overbuilding physical plant, reduce labor costs through adjunctification (independent contractors again), bestow financial and perquisite rewards on a swollen administrative bureaucracy, while placing the burdens on students and their parents (skyrocketing loan debt) and part-time faculty (low pay, no benefits).  And, importantly, these part-time faculty, who do the lion’s share of the teaching, have no voice in matters of governance, curriculum, work rules, etc.  Unless they organize, that is.  The rapid spread of such efforts around the country suggest that this system (and it is important that we think about this as a system) is being challenged.

    • Marguerite says:

      May 27, 2014 at 9:08 am

      Simply put, the “profit” ethic dominates almost all fields.  It is the improper ethic for most of them.  In the medical proession it should be the health of the patient; in the legal profession, equal justice under the law; and in the education profession, the complete education of the student.

      • Tom O'Connell says:

        May 27, 2014 at 6:42 pm

        Who would have thought that college professors—which is what adjunct faculty are—would be in the same boat as the millions of underpaid contingent workers throughout the economy.  The answer—and it is not an easy one- is to organize.  For tenured faculty like myself (though recently retired) from Metropolitan State University the questions is—which side are we on?!  As Jeff Kolnick pointed out in an earlier post, adjuncts are eligible to join the state university faculty union (Independent Faculty Union—aka IFO). I suggest that adjuncts (1)  form a strong union caucus to press demands for decent wages, benefits and job security (2) make common cause with the broader adjunct justice movement that has been so successful in elevating this issue and (3) that that full time, tenured union members act in real solidarity with adjuncts in and out of our union.  Hell, that’s one issue I would be happy to come out of retirement for!

  • Josh says:

    May 27, 2014 at 8:59 am

    As someone who has attended college in the last decade, it troubles me knowing that I was paying huge amounts of money and the people who were teaching me were possibly living in poverty—with no benefits—and having to run themselves into the ground at two or three campuses just to come close to paying their bills. I have no idea who was tenure track and who was adjunct, and imagine most students and parents are equally oblivious to the distinction, despite the fact that it determines if the person teaching you has stability and the proper resources to do their job.

    It seems as the cost of Higher Ed increases, students and parents have the right to know that the people who are instrumental in them getting the most out of their experience have the stability and resources (i.e an office, pay the compensates their time outside of class with students, benefits so they can go to the doctor if they are sick, etc) they need.

    If Minnesota families continue to pile up student debt to pay for college, the universities owe it to students and families to make sure their “employees” have all they need to make sure those student loans are not in vain.

  • jeff kolnick says:

    May 27, 2014 at 9:02 am

    Here is a link to an op ed I wrote with suggestions for how to make immediate and almost cost free improvements in the system. In the long run, pay needs to be proportional in terms of salary per credit and include health care for those who do not have it. Anyone who teaches in our colleges and universities needs to earn a living wage and be given the conditions necessary to act professionally. Remember, faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.

  • Alan Miller says:

    May 27, 2014 at 9:04 am

    Also, it’s really degrading, when after teaching as an adjunct for 18 years at the same institution, with a Doctorate and with excellent student evaluations, to see a new hire come on board, without a graduate degree, and be given some choice classes which you formerly taught, to have your hours slashed, and have the fairly new Dean who makes the assignments tell you, “Well, you’re only an Adjunct.  You have no rights. So don’t complain.”

    • Marguerite says:

      May 27, 2014 at 9:12 am

      Wow.  I am sorry to hear this, Alan.  In Catholic social teaching, the dignity of the human person, including the worker, is paramount.  All instutions should act on this principle, sectarian or otherwise.

  • Paul Conklin says:

    May 27, 2014 at 9:32 am

    I have been an adjunct since 1995, teaching a couple of classes a year.  I enjoy the status, as I get to keep a toe in academia while pursuing other interests.  Of course I wouldn’t mind being paid more, but I’m not really doing it for the money.  I see real advantages to students of having practicing professionals teaching some courses, as the material will be up to date and relevant to the current job market.  At Bemidji State they are actually cutting adjunct hours by asking the full time faculty to teach more intro classes, cutting or consolidating upper level classes, and increasing class sizes.  I think that is worse educationally than having a lot of adjuncts.  On the other hand, I certainly see the problem of denying people who are essentially full time the benefits of full time work by playing the “we can always hire someone else to replace you” card.  Harried, stressed, over worked faculty are not good for the students either, but lets not say that having adjuncts is bad just because adjunct status is being abused. A core of full time faculty, with a constellation of adjuncts bringing in other perspectives and specialized expertise would be the educational optimum in my opinion.

  • Paul Munnis says:

    May 27, 2014 at 11:07 am

    American education is poised for change from top to bottom. It is too expensive ranging from public schooling to higher education. It is no longer serving society well. Technology is offering an opportunity to eliminate the teaching staff as redundant. The cost of plant and facility is too high. Public schools have turned into day care centers for working parents.

    Around the world millions of children are denied an education and in Islamic nations when girls become educated they can be killed.

    In Africa, and elsewhere in the world, education is not well funded because the funds are lacking.

    Thus the world is poised to hit the RESET button on education, how it is delivered, what the cost implications are, and terms of setting standards of education entitlement will be established.

    Adjunct professors? They are a stepping stone to bigger changes in the cost model of delivery.

    As education change is premised then the role of industry in training workers will have to be discussed.

    Get ready for a societal reset in education. It is coming our way.

  • United Minnesota Adjunct Professors says:

    May 27, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    We can continue this important discussion here:

  • Pete Border says:

    May 27, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    I’m the Chair of a small department at a Business College. We have two fulltime faculty and a couple of adjuncts, who work for appalingly low wages. Most of our classes are handled by the full-timers, who get benefits but no tenure. I have nothing to do with negotiating wages. Here’s what I’ve gathered from being part of many adjunct hires:

    The school wants to keep costs low. We get a lot of negative press for overcharging students, so there is constant pressure to keep costs down.

    There is no shortage of people who want to be adjuncts.  When we have an opening we usually get 4-5 good applications. The pay is dreadful and the benefits are nonexistent, but there are people out there who want to do this.

    New hires take a couple of quarters to get their course figured out. New hires also take more supervision. From the college’s point of view, new hires are something to avoid. The college wants to rehire the same teachers over and over and over.

    Teaching a course for the first time takes a lot of work. Teaching it the second time is much easier, as is the third, fourth, etc. Teachers usually want to teach the same course over and over and over.

    Tenure makes for a very inflexible program.  Once someone gets tenure, they will be sitting on your payroll for decades. Quite a few tenured faculty lose interest and will do only the absolute minimum- others, of course, stay dynamic and engaged into their seventies. But the point is that getting rid of the tired ones is very difficult.

    This business college can change incredibly fast. When I worked at the U, adding a single course took two years of wrestling with committees. Here we can add a whole new BS degree in 3 months. Adding a new “campus” (some of which are in old strip malls) takes a few months.

    The adjunct labor market is pretty much pure supply and demand. As long as there are quality people willing to work for low wages, there won’t be high wages. The easiest place to trim expenses is when you hire someone new, so adjuncts wind up bearing the brunt of the college-costs-too-much problem.  So far there is no problem finding jobseekers.

    Online education is sure to make things much worse. It costs a college nothing to offer an online course with multiple-choice exams, or “essays” graded by some sort of algorithm. There is no way for a human teacher to compete with something like that, which will drive adjunct wages even lower. And then it will all get outsourced to India…

    • dave nass says:

      May 27, 2014 at 1:49 pm

      Adjunct pay at even unionized schools is pretty poor. If the organizers can unionize the faculty at these private schools, they have a better chance at getting adjunct numbers reduced and better pay. An independent union of adjuncts will have tough going because there will evidently be people willing to undercut you. We all know administrators just want cheap labor. Organizing private colleges is a tough job though. My advice is don’t take an adjunct job unless you are finishing up a PHD and want some experience and a little money. A person just can’t make a career on adjunct pay. I taught for 24 years in MNSCU and was active union advocate who helped organize the AFT at SSU.

  • Clark Bergman says:

    May 27, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    When the Star-Tribune article on adjunct professors appeared in March or April, I wondered why college was costing so much.  Why are MIAC schools charging something north of $40,000 per year for tuition when 50% of their professors are being paid $3 or 4K per class?  At 5 classes of, say, 15 students per class, that comes to $600K or $120K available per class.  It appears that adjunct professors are a huge profit center and most tuition dollars are being applied to something other than education.

    For graduate students aiming for teaching careers, the numbers are against them when the number of teaching positions is not rapidly growing.  The average professor may produce 1 new graduate a year over a 30 year career.  Around 29 of them need to find work outside of academia.  That, apparently, has not been happening.

    Regarding benefits and pay:  Individuals, even very skilled ones, have little power.  When unions were strong, even those not in unions were beneficiaries of the threat of a union.  Those at the top have power - they set the rules including the rules for themselves.  For everybody else, you either need skills that are high in demand or the power of an organization to be treated with a degree of fairness.  The problem with any individual or group that has power is the tendency to abuse that power.  At the moment, college administrators seem to be in that category.

  • Chris Hoeckley says:

    May 28, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    What’s driving the need for cheap labor is not a puzzling question: it is insufficient funds for expensive full-time, fully trained labor. Why aren’t there funds for expensive labor? Because no one sees the difference between the GE course taught be the adjunct and the GE course taught by the tenure-track faculty member. Three units of World Civ is three units of World Civ, isn’t it? Why should students, parents or taxpayers pay more for the same thing? But, without knocking hard-working, smart, talented adjuncts, there is a difference. We need to make that difference known, and convince those paying the bills that it’s worth the price.