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Contingent Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids

What's gone wrong at our colleges and universities--and how to get American higher education back on track



Henry Holt and Co.

Some years ago, at a college where Claudia was teaching a nonfiction writing course, she found herself working without an assigned office space. All college teachers require a dedicated corner where they can confer with their students. And Claudia's specialty—journalism training—is particularly dependent on professor-student interactions. Claudia’s students bring her their tentative first attempts at reporting. She must show them where they’ve gone right or wrong and gently steer them onto a successful path. Given the vulnerability of young writers, all of this is best done delicately, and in private. “I have no office space for meeting my students—what can we do about this?” Claudia inquired of the administrator who ran her department.

“There’s no space left this term,” the administrator declared dismissively, annoyed. “The regular faculty have taken everything.”

“I understand,” Claudia persisted, “but what are my students to do? This is part of their training.”

“Couldn’t you meet them in the cafeteria? Or the hallway? There are a couple of lounge chairs by the ladies’ room.”

That stunned her. Was this person actually suggesting that Claudia confer with her students south of a toilet?

This administrator, an individual who herself enjoyed a large, airy office far from the scent of the lavatory, grew increasingly irritated with Claudia’s insistence that her students deserved better. After ten minutes of back and forth, came this: “Listen here, Ms. Dreifus, you’re an adjunct! Do you get that? We’ve got a hundred adjuncts here. I’m busy.”

Ah, the pecking order of the university! Claudia—who’d previously spent much of her life as a professional journalist—didn’t yet understand her lowly place in this new environment.

Adjuncts belong to a diverse group of teachers called contingents, who are hired to take on chores regular faculty members don’t want to do. Their numbers and ratios increase with the size of a university, but since most students now attend larger schools, this raises their chances of getting a contingent education.

As we noted earlier, contingent faculty fall in several tiers.

Instructors and Lecturers. These positions have some security, but are low on status. They receive modest salaries and benefits, and many have multiyear contracts. It is generally understood that they will not move to the tenure track. By and large, they do jobs the higher tiers don’t want, like compositions sections or freshman mathematics. Many are faculty spouses.

Visiting Faculty. Here we are not referring to academic or kindred celebrities, who come to grace a campus for outlandish salaries. Rather, they are more likely to be young doctorate holders who cannot find a regular appointment. They fill in for professors on sabbatical or maternity leave. Many have had a succession of such appointments, but they are never asked to stay. They receive health and other benefits, but only for the period they are in residence.

Adjuncts. There are so many it’s impossible to get a reliable count. The range runs from respected professionals like lawyers and film producers who teach one evening course (largely because they enjoy it) to gypsy scholars who commute among as many as four campuses in a single week. As we’ve noted, pay rates are shamefully low. The American Federation of Teachers found the average is about $3,000 per course, which means many get less.

Teaching Assistants. In colleges that have master’s and doctoral programs, graduate students are regularly used as cheap teaching labor. Most typically, they run discussion sections in large lecture classes, freeing the professors from personal contact with undergraduates and chores they feel are beneath them. An American Association of University Professors survey of 280 research universities found that together they employed 181,481 teaching assistants, ranging from 5,376 at Berkeley to 202 at the University of Chicago. It’s difficult to track down information on what all graduate assistants are paid. Still, we can report that the stipend at Yale, as a school with more resources than most, is about $20,000 for the nine teaching months, plus another $3,500 to survive over the summer. Even for a single person, this is essentially a poverty wage.

At the end of the day, contingents are no more part of the system than an office temp might be, though few modern universities—or, for that matter, many colleges—could function without them. So we’re not easy with calling them “faculty,” even as they carry the same teaching responsibilities as tenured and tenure track professors.

What contingency is about is money. At Queens College, a branch of the City University of New York, where Andrew teaches political science, for example, the pay is better than average, but the disparities are typical. When students walk into the gleaming building that is Powdermaker Hall, they might see one classroom where a full professor is explaining the economic ideas of the Nation’s Founders. He’ll earn $116,000 for six classes taught over nine months—$17,000 per course. In the very next room is an adjunct teaching po liti cal theory to thirty bright-eyed freshmen. But she gets a flat fee of $4,600, admittedly higher than the national average, but so is the urban cost of living. Moreover, the professor has health insurance, sick days, sabbaticals, and a hefty TIAA- CREF pension. The adjunct’s benefits are akin to W. C. Fields’s reward in The Bank Dick—“a hearty handshake.”

This is one of the anomalies of the system. Higher education is probably one of the only sectors of the national workplace where one regularly finds two people with similar credentials, working side by side at comparable jobs, and experiencing such extreme pay gaps. We are not talking here about the skill differentials between an airline pilot and an airport cleaner; adjuncts often perform as well, sometimes better, than the tenured staff.

And there’s the respect factor. Contingents are the Rodney Dangerfields of higher education. “Everyone’s rude to you; the chair, the tenured, even, at times, the assistant professors,” reports Jose Vasquez, a biologist who held adjunct positions at four colleges in Chicago and New York before landing a full-time position. “Plus departmental secretaries, because they are low on the totem pole, but you’re still lower.”

And yet, as we write this in 2010, the bulk of the undergraduate teaching at our nation’s colleges and universities is performed by part- timers, a fact we note in both sorrow and anger. Twentyfirst- century freshmen are finding that many, if not most, of their basic classes are likely to be conducted by contingents. Harvard and Yale coat the pill by calling them “teaching fellows.” But “fellow” or “assistant,” this is not what parents think they’re getting for the hundreds of thousands of dollars that an Ivy League education costs. In 1975, the first year the U.S. Department of Education kept statistics in this area, only 43 percent of college teachers were classified as contingents. Today it’s nearly 70 percent.

How did this practice become so ubiquitous, anyway?

Ernst Benjamin, the former General Secretary of the American Association of University Professors, told us, “At many schools individual faculty members believed there would be more money for them if they used part- time faculty. But however economically rational it was in their own department, if you did this across the country, it became a problem.”

The explosion of contingent instruction has several causes. But we’re wary of attributing it chiefly to a bureaucratic desire to hold costs down. Indeed, until endowments started melting, administrations were happy to spend freely across the board, including on the academic side. As we’ve noted, the paper ratio of professors to students grew, as did top faculty salaries relative to the cost of living.

In fact, the increasing reliance on adjuncts and other transitory teachers arose largely from developments within the permanent faculty. Due to possessing tenure and optional retirement, full professors had come to outnumber those holding associate and assistant rank. As a result, most of the faculty bud get was earmarked for the highly paid people at the top, so less was left to bring in new junior faculty, especially assistant professors. The generous bestowal of tenure, at least for those lucky enough to be on the track, also distorted the payroll. Faculty with lifetime appointments have stayed on and on. Moreover, they are generally given annual raises, in the name of comity. Hence the hiring of contingents, who underwrite these increments for full professors.

Even smaller colleges now want to talk about how their professors are publishing and giving conference papers. With so many faculty taking time away from teaching, more visitors and parttimers were brought in to ensure that necessary courses were given. In a similar quest for status, colleges recast themselves as universities in order to attract graduate students and award advanced degrees. After all, academic reputations come from offering research seminars and supervising dissertations. In consequence, fewer professors had the time—indeed, the desire—to teach the undergraduate classes that had once been their usual load. Adjuncts took their place, especially at the introductory level.

Accompanying the search for status was an increasing air of loftiness, often bordering on arrogance. More professors felt they could simply say no, they wouldn’t teach underclass courses, or indeed any course outside their sub-specialty. At many elite universities, even the core curriculum and large lecture classes are handed over to the contingent personnel.

Supply and demand interact. In particular, a growing supply can subtly spur demand. The growing army of contingents made it easier for regular faculty to do less work, or at least take on only the tasks they chose. Indeed, all these transitory adjuncts and temporary part-timers had been nurtured by the very professors whose erstwhile classes they were teaching. And here administrators played a role. Just as in the name of efficiency they had replaced cafeteria staffs with outside contractors, instructors paid only for a term at a time made economic sense. We’d only add that in doing this, they didn’t encounter objections from the full- time faculty.

Ironically, as we write this in the midst of the recession that began in the fall of 2008, there may be a slight dip in the number of contingents on campus. With the budget stringencies created by the financial crisis, contingents were the first to be trimmed from the payroll. However, when you fire a contingent, you cancel a course. In the University of California system, students are finding they can’t get the classes they need for their majors and degrees. The schools are actually planning on shrinking their undergraduate enrollment, though there are few plans to trim tenured professors. We have yet to find senior faculty acknowledging that they bear some responsibility for this.

Adjunct teachers, of course, take many forms. We’ve picked two, from different parts of the country, to show the faces of some men and women who are providing the bulk of undergraduate education.

Matt Williams lives in the Akron area and does most of his teaching at the local university bearing that name. Like some of the contingent class, particularly those who instruct in English courses, he teaches with only a master’s degree. Last year, he told us, he taught twelve different classes at two colleges. He also picks up extra income by writing press releases for companies and delivering automobiles. His wife has chosen to stay at home with their two young children. Their take-home income must be significantly below $30,000 since his family qualifies for and receives Medicaid.

Williams is—or was—politically conservative. He grew up around a university; his father taught electrical engineering. “I’m about the last guy you’d think would be fighting for a union,” he said during an interview, laughing. It’s the numbers that radicalized him. In the course he teaches on public speaking, there’s a unit on how to address social issues. “I’ve asked my students, ‘How much do you think I make?’ Their mouths flew open when I said it works out to $8.65 an hour. They were absolutely unaware. One of the things I’ve started to do—and urge others to do also—is put on the top of their course syllabus, ‘This class is being taught by a professor who earns $8.65 an hour.’ ”

The way he’s calculated his personal economics, “If I could work doing the same thing as a full-time lecturer, I would make $32,000 a year. If I were an associate professor of communications, I would earn $50,000.” Of course, to become an associate professor on tenure track, he’d need at least a PhD. Matt Williams is too busy running from one job to another to even consider returning to school. Besides, in the area he wants to teach—undergraduate communications and speech—the courses are more and more being left to part-timers with a master’s degree in Fine Arts. As the writer P. D. Lesko, who publishes the web magazine Adjunct Nation, jokes, “MFA really means ‘More Faculty Adjuncts.’ ”

Matt Williams is torn about his future. He’s joined the New Faculty Majority, a national coalition of adjuncts that is not a labor union per se, but a kind of Internet chat room where people can meet and exchange ideas. By all accounts, he’s skilled and committed in the classroom, encouraging students to think for themselves. Even so, he’s close to abandoning the academic world. “I need to get out of what I’m doing right now before I paint myself into a corner,” he says. “I have corporate experience. It’s getting to the point where my obligation to my family is superseding everything else.”

Even if Matt Williams could go back to school for the PhD, many years of adjuncting wouldn’t count as valuable classroom experience. Rather, for most, it’s a black mark. This was borne out by an informal survey Angelo Gene Monaco, the vice president for human resources at the University of Akron, performed. Out of curiosity, he surveyed sixty heads of departments at a sample of midwestern colleges. Only three told him they’d even consider hiring a contingent for a full-time post. Monaco created quite a stir at the 2008 meeting of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources when he declared: “We’ve helped create a highly educated part of the working poor.”

Angelo Gene Monaco could be speaking of Deborah Louis. In the 1960s, she wrote a real book, a history of the civil rights movement called And We Are Not Saved, which was published by Doubleday. She attended prestigious schools and has a PhD. But, as she had young children, she opted for part-time teaching. “I had three daughters and I needed to be available to them,” she told us. “I also wanted to consult for community organizations.”

Long since divorced, she now earns her daily bread doing adjunct teaching at Eastern Kentucky University and Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in North Carolina. As an adjunct, she’s never had a year where she’s earned more than $40,000; many years have been much, much leaner.

But Louis is still drawn to research. So at Asheville- Buncombe, she distributed a questionnaire to her fellow adjuncts. Among her findings, which she reported to the Chronicle of Higher Education:

  • About two- thirds of those who answered her questionnaire were “women who have children or dependent adults at home and whose pay, whether alone or with a partner’s earnings, are essential to their house holds.”
  • Half taught three or more courses—in other words, a full load. She had one respondent who was teaching twelve classes.
  • Less than half felt they were “respected by the salaried faculty members and administrators or that they were perceived as part of the campus community.”

None of this astonished Louis; it’s her own story. Nor does it surprise Alison Gopnick, a psychologist at Berkeley. “If ever there was a women’s issue in the academy, this is it,” she told us. “Adjuncting is where the so-called Mommy Track is. A lot of women think they can have families and stay in the game by adjuncting. They get trapped there.”

Age and time also traps them. Vagabonding from job to job isn’t so terrible when you’re young, but it takes its toll on the part-timers as they get older. When we last spoke with Deborah Louis, she said she was trying to cobble together a livelihood by teaching sixteen “distance” courses. Online teaching, she said, was tougher than face-to-face instruction, because, if you do it seriously, “you never get a break from it. You almost sleep with your computer.”

Though she enjoyed the students she’d encountered at the community colleges, monitoring an army of distance learners might be easier on her, in the long run, than shuttling between campuses. When we inquired about her health insurance, Dr. Louis chuckled. She’ll be eligible for Medicare in about a year. That’s an adjunct’s health insurance.

Once upon a time, these adjunct teachers were graduate students—which is where the exploitation usually begins. While pursuing higher degrees, they were part of a nationwide cohort of as many as 250,000 teaching assistants. Their use runs pretty much from 55 percent of all instructional personnel at Penn State to about 40 percent at Brown. Higher education couldn’t function without them. Even respected liberal arts colleges like Wellesley and Macalester bring in some graduate students to fill in as adjuncts.

At the research universities, it’s the graduate students who mostly handle the “sections” of the large lecture classes, although many are now assigned courses of their own. And at most universities, the teaching assistants are simply put in front of students, sink or swim. Kindergarten teachers get more preparation in how to teach than graduate assistants at our universities. True, many universities have “teaching centers” where novices can get pointers and coaching, but they are generally unvisited. As a student wrote in the Yale Daily News, “the University does not have any centralized system for preparing graduate student teaching fellows to assist a professor or lead a class, and there is no official remedy for dealing with the problems that may arise throughout the semester if a teaching fellow is unprofessional or unprepared.”

So teaching the teachers is mostly left to the few professors who really care. Harvard’s Michael Sandel treats his section assistants as if they are themselves in a seminar. They meet weekly to consider not only substantive topics but also devices for orchestrating discussions and getting everyone involved. In short, Sandel defined his job as teaching his graduate assistants how to teach. We watched Carl Wieman doing the same thing in his “Physics for Engineers” class at the University of Colorado and it was inspiring. One hitch, which we’ll be considering later, is that not all senior professors are good teachers themselves, so they don’t have any useful advice to pass on. At best, observing them might provide lessons in what not to do.

There are also limits to what tutelage can achieve in an institution where cost-cutting is paramount. A telling story came to us from Jose Vasquez, the NYU biologist, who, a few years back, coordinated graduate science teaching assistants at a public university in the Chicago area: “A lot of the graduate assistants came from abroad and their English simply wasn’t good enough for them to be in front of American students,” he recalled. “It was horrible for the students, who complained they couldn’t understand their instructors. I went to the administration and said, ‘You’ve got to give these TAs six months of intensive English before putting them into a classroom. They said, ‘That’s too expensive.’ This really bothered me because the students were taking the science classes for medical school admission. This hurt them.”

At the risk of sounding nativist, we have to report that students everywhere told us that foreign graduate students, particularly in mathematics and the sciences, are a problem. Because few Americans are opting for advanced study in these fields, our universities go to China, Russia, and India not just to fill up their seminars but for teachers of calculus and physics to undergraduates. That’s a stopgap when they speak English. But if they can’t, it’s a disaster.

Meanwhile, graduate fellows across the country have attempted to unionize in a quest to better their conditions. At Yale and Cornell, such moves have been resisted by the administration; at NYU, the university attempted to break the union. Until recently, the National Labor Relations Board has held that teaching assistants at private institutions aren’t legally workers but more like apprentices learning a craft. So they have had an uphill fight to gain representation and collective bargaining. But in 2010, the panel’s membership was reconfigured, and that ruling may change. (At public universities, the right to unionize depends on state laws. In Wisconsin and Michigan, the legislatures have been sympathetic. Not surprisingly, in Idaho and Louisiana, they have not.)

In more golden years, when faculties were expanding almost exponentially, most PhDs could expect a promising starting job. Off in their future was the life of the mind, at passable pay, with plenty of leisure time. No longer. The story can be told in two recent figures. Between 2005 and 2007 American universities awarded 101,009 doctoral degrees. The number of new assistant professorships created in those years: 15,820. Even if we allow that half of new PhDs take jobs outside teaching, there are at least three aspiring scholars for each academic opening. Despite graduate students’ poor chances on the academic market, senior professors have a vested interest in new graduate students coming in: They not only help with teaching—the number of graduate students that professors have working under them is a metric of their own prestige.

Given the implications of these fi gures, we think that senior professors should be having conversations with first-year graduate students that go something like: “In all honesty, you have less than a one-in-three chance of getting a full-time job as an academic. Your only motive for pursuing your doctorate should be your own intellectual development.”

But given professors’ self-interest, such frankness is likely to be rare. Nor are first-rank research schools like Berkeley and Yale the only ones bestowing doctoral mantles. The list has expanded to 280, burgeoned by regional state universities hoping to raise their status. Among them are Florida Atlantic, Georgia Southern, Eastern Michigan, and Middle Tennessee universities, which are all now adding to the national overproduction of doctorates.

Not so very long ago even a Georgia Southern University could send its PhDs to fill faculty positions at colleges in the region. Now those schools are only advertising for adjuncts. There’s a glut of PhDs on the labor market and the colleges are quite willing to take advantage of it.

What college administrators need to understand is that some educational practices may be counterproductive. Paul D. Umbach at North Carolina State University studied 21,000 faculty members at 148 colleges and found that at schools using lots of parttimers, the regular teaching staff put in fewer hours of preparation than their peers at institutions where adjuncts were rare. He went on to suggest that the presence of so many part-timers makes the regular faculty insecure, which “translates into lower levels of commitment and performance.” As more and more adjuncts are brought in, even tenured professors begin to feel increasingly beleaguered. That’s one interpretation. We’d like to suggest another one—that at schools with a large contingent teaching staff, some of the fulltimers may just feel: Hey, let the adjuncts do it!

Another study, by Audrey J. Jaeger of North Carolina State University and M. Kevin Eagan Jr. at UCLA, mined the transcripts of some 30,000 undergraduates enrolled in four public universities in the Southeast. They found a strong relationship between dropout rates and having contingent faculty teaching basic freshmen courses. They also looked at community college students in California and found that when students were taught by contingents their odds of going on to four-year colleges decreased.

Yet what amazed us is how many contingents are actually effective, a miracle considering the conditions under which they work. Indeed, at nearly every school we visited, when we asked students for the name of a favorite professor, they frequently mentioned a contingent. Jonathan Meltzer, a Harvard undergraduate, echoed the views of many when he told us, “Professors I have had, who are not tenured, are sometimes—not always—more motivated by teaching, more interested in making sure their students are enjoying their classes, probably because they feel that will sort of help them down the line. But in general maybe it’s also because they are closer in age and can more easily interact with the students.”

At the University of Mary land, Baltimore County, Bradley Walker’s favorite professor was an adjunct. UMBC is not all that far from Washington and it sometimes gets interesting part-timers who have practical experience in government. Walker told us, “The knee-jerk reaction would be to say that part-time professors are the worst professors, but here I would take exception to that. There’s a part-time professor who works at the CIA and teaches a class and he consistently ranks as one of the best professors among students.”

Both of us have served as adjuncts at different times in our careers. It has occurred to us that some contingents love teaching so much that they’ll do it with dignity and care, regardless of low pay. It’s sad that their passion for the classroom is so readily exploited.

We all fill our homes with inexpensive products that are fabricated overseas at Third World wages. At this point, we can’t outsource History 101 to be taught in Bangalore. (Although, as we’ll show in a later chapter, something akin to that is already being done.) What we do instead is hire our own citizens and give them Third World pay. What is ironic—no, it’s tragic—is that these bright men and women are so anxious to ply their profession that they are willing to toil in the academic counterparts of sweatshops and vegetable fields.

We wish we could end this chapter on an upbeat note. But it’s clear that higher education knows that low-cost labor is there. This can already be seen in two-year colleges, many of which have found ways to operate essentially without faculties. Florida Keys Community College has eighteen permanent professors, who then bring in 123 adjuncts to teach the bulk of its courses. Missouri’s Moberly College makes do with only three professors, who recruit 254 adjuncts and instructors. Administrators at four-year schools may well be paying visits to see how they do it.

Nor is this race to the bottom finished. At some schools, contingents, cheap as they are, are seen as still too costly. Several of the University of Pennsylvania’s freshmen sections at the Wharton School are supervised by upperclass undergraduates. Yale has a shortage of graduate teaching assistants and there has been talk, as we write, to train upperclassmen and women to serve as “section leaders.” Such plans are already afoot at NYU, where a pre-medical student told us of undergraduate section leaders in science courses. “They pay them a little something,” she said.

Excerpted from the book HIGHER EDUCATION?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids--And What We Can Do About It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, published in August by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2010 by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. All rights reserved.

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