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Part-time instructors may get legislated relief

A few days ago, I wrote about Oregon’s community colleges and their attempts to reduce a looming statewide budget deficit. Like many other publicly funded community colleges, Oregon’s 17 two-year schools rely on part-time instructors to deliver much of the system’s instruction. Part-time instructors don’t cost nearly as much as full-time instructors do. As a result, community colleges also rely on part-time instructors to balance the school’s budget.

The Oregon State Senate is now considering a bill to create salary parity among the state’s public higher education institutions. Senate Bill 416, if adopted, would require universities and community colleges to pay part-time instructors the same as their full-time instructional staff. That would likely require the institutions to pay full-time instructors on an hourly basis.

According to part-time instructors who testified before the Senate in support of the bill, they perform fundamentally the same work as their full-time counterparts for about half of the pay. Universities in the state object because full-time instructors also do a variety of tasks that part-time instructors do not, such as research, course development, student advising and other similar tasks.

Regardless of how this plays out in Oregon, it is bringing unwanted attention to the fact that higher education institutions rely on cheap labor to deliver most of the instruction on campus. According to the most recently published institutional data, part-time faculty members at WCC outnumber full-time faculty members 13:4. The full-time equivalent instructional staff was 323 in the Fall 2021 semester, but the actual number of full-time instructors on the payroll was just 155. That means WCC employs less than half of the full-time instructors it needs to operate.

Who relies heavily on part-time instructors?

Of the largest community colleges in Michigan, only Wayne County Community College District, Lansing Community College, Schoolcraft College and Washtenaw Community College would need to more than double their instructional staffs were they to switch to full-time only instructors. Only Jackson College uses full-time instructors exclusively.

Increased reliance on part-time instructors to deliver instruction and balance the institution’s books speaks to the institution’s spending priorities. As my children like to say, when your business model relies on using low-cost labor, your business model sucks.

A higher education institution’s top priority should always be delivering the highest quality instruction. Students don’t get a discount for taking classes taught by part-time instructors. So, what does it say about an institution that relies more heavily on part-time instructors specifically because it can pay them less? And if instruction is the primary purpose of the institution, why is it necessary to strictly limit the cost of instruction, when the institution doesn’t appear to apply the same restrictions to the cost of the administration?

The issue of adjunct pay is not going away. Institutions cannot continue to turn to low-wage labor to bury their outlandish administrative costs. As we’re seeing in Oregon, doing so risks legislated corrective action to preserve the state’s substantial interest in higher education.

Photo Credit: Transcend, via Flickr