Higher Education's Dirty Little Secret

The question, "Why does college cost so much?" is on everyone's lips these days as more people seek a college diploma, regardless of the debt it incurs. While some colleges are actually cutting tuition, most continue to charge hefty sums, often to support high salaries for top executives and administrative bloat.

One area where colleges and universities are cutting costs is in faculty compensation, hiring non-tenure track adjunct professors for low pay and no benefits. Often, these contract workers are being paid poverty-level wages while colleges continue to charge outrageous tuition and fees.

Cutting until it hurts
A recent Bloomberg article notes that in the mid-1970s, nearly 50% of college-level instructors were tenured or tenure track, a percentage that had fallen to approximately 25% as of 2011. Today, almost 66% of professors are adjunct.

The lack of benefits is troubling enough, but the pay differences are especially stark. An educator at the University of Pittsburg, for example, reports making $31,000 per year with a six-class workload, while tenured faculty compensation for the 2011 to 2012 school year ranged from $45,000 to $130,000. A longtime adjunct from New York City estimates he was paid between $2,500 and $4,200 per class, while the universities that employed him made $35,000 to $105,000 in revenue.

The Adjunct Project is a treasure trove of information about adjunct pay levels, created and maintained by contract educators themselves. Using the search function revealed some illuminating facts, such as the pay rate for adjunct work at the University of Chicago, where President Robert Zimmer makes over $3.3 million in compensation: a paltry $3,500 to $5,000 per course. At Harvard, things are better, with adjuncts being paid between $6,500 and $12,575 for each course they teach; Harvard, meanwhile, charges over $42,000 in tuition and fees per year.

Adjuncts fight back
As the ranks of part-time faculty continue to swell, these educators are beginning to assert themselves. Some have unionized, like the members of the Adjunct Faculty Association at the University of Pittsburg, who are currently fighting the university's tenure rules that exclude adjuncts from attaining that coveted measure of job security.

In Boston, Massachusetts, the unionization of adjuncts at Tufts University set the stage for a citywide organizing drive last fall. Allying themselves with the Service Employees International Union, the group hopes to protect the pay and benefits that were beginning to ebb away at the time of the organizing drive.

Contract educators at nearby Lesley University will be voting on their own union later this month after being approached by SEIU following the organization of the workers at Tufts. Lesley has a large contingent of adjuncts -- an average of 250 compared with 174 full-time faculty. The Cambridge City Council has recently thrown its weight behind the effort, voting in favor of a resolution that acknowledges and supports all of Cambridge's adjunct professors in their unionization efforts.

SEIU is pressing adjunct unionization in other areas of the country, too -- with quite a bit of success. Organization of this fast-growing sector appears to be the wave of the future, and it can only improve the quality of higher education by improving the lives of those who have direct contact with the student population.

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