(Swans - June 17, 2013) Now that the college academic school year has entered its summer phase, I thought I would take time to explore some of the most important issues facing contingent faculty in higher education. In particular, I feel the need to explore some of the ramifications of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act -- sometimes derisively referred to by critics as "Obamacare" -- and its effect upon the material conditions of the adjunct professor in higher education.
It is no secret that higher education in America has long been compromised by the thirst for the almighty dollar. Tuition has soared over the past two decades at a rate of about 300 percent. I can recall in attending the University of Richmond, a private institution, during the late 1980s, tuition and room and board was around $13,000 a year. Today, its tuition and room and board stands at between $45,000-$52,000. Public institutions are not immune to inflated prices either. The University of Virginia, for example, peddles its undergraduate education and room and board today in the $23,000 range for Virginia residents; as a secondary school senior looking at colleges in the late '80s, I recall that number being in the $7,000 range. So with the higher expenses for a good college education these days, where are universities incurring their greatest expenses?
It certainly cannot be for labor, and what I am referring to in particular is the university's teaching force. Tenure track jobs have dwindled within the same timeframe and now, adjunct or part time faculty comprise around 70 percent of the college and university teaching force. In the community college system where I make my bones, adjuncts comprise nearly 85 percent of the teaching force.
The public may not be aware of the working conditions of the college adjunct. Adjuncts labor under virtually no job security (we can be cut loose for any reason, with or without cause), work for little or no benefits, toil under infrequent "wage" increases, and often teach large classes. I emphasize "wage" here because often, colleges refer to adjunct income as a "salary" but that term seems to be more applicable to full time, minimum-wage labor. Adjuncts, at least at the community college level, make between $400-$900 a credit hour (in the university or four-year college system, the number may be $1000-$4000 per credit hour) but they are often limited to teaching a certain amount of credit hours per semester to fall under being classified as full time by the institution. Thus, many community college adjuncts have to become "road scholars" and teach at a multiple number of geographically-distant community colleges in order to be able to make payments on the already excessive amount of debt they racked up in obtaining their post-graduate degrees, support their families, and pay for health insurance.
The issue of health insurance brings pause for the adjunct working force because of the impending implementation of the Affordable Care Act. In my situation in teaching at community colleges in Virginia and Maryland, Obamacare is now becoming a burden for adjuncts. Both states (and many more will follow) are now having to comply with the federal definition of full time: 30 hours for one week of work. One college class for an adjunct, in terms of teaching hours, grading, and preparation, can easily exhaust 10-15 hours a week, so three classes in a semester might translate into 30-45 hours of work (or more depending upon class size). In order to comply with the Obamacare requirements, Virginia is now limiting its adjuncts to 27-29 hours per week (which translates to 9-10 credit hour loads per semester). For an adjunct faculty member making, for example, $700 per credit hour and limited to teaching nine credit hours in the fall, spring, and summer semesters, that translates into a gross income of a little under $19,000 per year: after taxes (remember, the Bush tax cuts expired under the sapient governance of Obama and a Tea Party House of Representatives), the net income is around $14,000 to $16,000 per year. God forbid having an adjunct teach with that type of "salary," which is about what a person with a full time, federal minimum wage job earns in a year. Yet in having to comply with Obamacare, states and community colleges are not only shaving adjuncts' income but harming their ability to pay for health insurance in the first place. In Virginia, no longer can an adjunct teach at a number of state community colleges in order to make extra money to earn a living: the state now has a mechanism in place to snare adjuncts who teach at other community colleges above a cumulative 10 credit hour per semester threshold.
So in the goal to provide universal health coverage, the Affordable Care Act has seemed to have done the opposite in allowing states and colleges to do two things: 1) to limit adjunct faculty working hours, and 2) reduce the ability of adjunct faculty to pay for their health insurance. This unfunded mandate is perhaps -- alongside the Obama administration's continuing consolidation of executive power -- one of the worst pieces of legislation to have come along in years. I say that as someone who is a progressive on this issue. Unfortunately, students will also bear the brunt of this policy because adjuncts will be forced to teach over state lines in order to earn more: the travel alone will make for a less energized teacher in the classroom. Additionally, colleges might hire more adjuncts who, because they might only teach one class, feel disengaged from students. It is a real shame that the Obama administration and Republicans cannot achieve a compromise on this issue, much less even address it.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)