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Relying on adjunct faculty comes at a cost

Community college funding models vary from state to state, but persistent enrollment declines have shined a light on their operations. One operational strategy that’s gained a lot of attention is a community college’s reliance on adjunct faculty. Community colleges (and other higher education institutions) employ adjunct faculty on a per-semester, contractual basis. Often, a school’s adjunct faculty outnumber its professional teaching staff.

Typically, a community college pays adjunct teachers by the contact hour. A contact hour is an hour of scheduled instruction. That means the college doesn’t pay adjunct teachers for having office hours, rendering assistance after class, grading, class preparation and other activities that take place outside of scheduled classroom instruction. Adjuncts don’t get benefits, even though they may work at a community college year-round. Commonly, adjuncts teach at multiple institutions to make enough money to get by.

Adjunct faculty on public assistance

Earlier this week, a Lane Community College (Eugene, OR) survey found that more than one-third of its adjunct faculty and one in twelve of its full-time faculty members received government assistance to address their basic needs. In 2019, LCC’s annual survey showed that 26% of its adjunct faculty received government assistance.

We regularly ridicule corporations like Walmart and Amazon, whose employees work full-time but still qualify for public assistance. Yet, this happens at our public institutions.

We typically associate food insecurity with community college students, but LCC’s survey showed that 1 out of 10 of its full-time faculty struggled to put food on their tables. One LCC faculty member became homeless. COVID-19 has landed hard on adjunct faculty members around the country. Lane Community College laid off 75 adjunct teachers.

(Side note: The concept of laying off adjunct faculty is a little odd. As contingent employees, they face the prospect each semester of not teaching, based on the college’s overall course enrollment. If their classes do not fill, the college may cancel the class with no obligation to the adjunct. Likewise, if a full-time faculty member’s courses get canceled, they can “bump” an adjunct to fulfill their contractual course load obligations. )

Starving adjuncts, dying colleges, bloated administrations

Nonetheless, I find it more troubling that community colleges (including WCC) prefer to employ adjuncts. Adjunct faculty cost less on an hourly basis and get no benefits but perform (with no pay) the functions that students need and expect.

Adjuncts just teach. They don’t develop new coursework or update existing classes. Community colleges that rely heavily on adjunct teachers lose the benefit of new curriculum development. Instead, they cobble together “new” programs from their existing coursework. That explains why the WCC administration has come up with only one “new” associate degree program in the last two years. (And even this was cobbled together from existing coursework.)

Ultimately, this failing strategy means the community misses out on new programs that would address its changing needs. The lack of curricular development guarantees that the community college will stagnate. Students will not see the community college as a viable path to enter expanding, in-demand fields. Enrollment will drop.

That’s exactly the price the community pays when the college administration tightly restricts the size of the full-time faculty. No new academic programs, no innovation, no workforce development, no economic growth. Unfortunately, those are precisely the outcomes the community expected when it agreed to fund a community college.

So, the community’s questions should be:

  • Why are we restricting program development to increase the size of the college administration?
  • If full-time instructors perform the real work of workforce development and economic growth through the creation of new academic programs and courses, how will substituting more administrators achieve that?
  • Wouldn’t more full-time instructors lead to better workforce development and larger economic growth?
  • Washtenaw County residents are giving WCC more than $60M in tax revenues annually. Why aren’t we getting what we’re paying for?

Photo Credit: Milan Rubio , via Flickr