Confronting the future of academic instruction

College and postgraduate attendance have been normalized – that’s a fact. Between 2000 and 2010, full-time college enrollment increased 45 percent, while the number of individuals, notably women and people of color, obtaining graduate and Ph.D. degrees in hopes of teaching in higher education continues to increase each year. When these factors of supply and demand for higher education instruction meet at their market equilibrium, we’re exposed to the dark realities of commoditized instruction: adjunct positions. Part-time, low wage, no benefits and zero job security – that’s what many individuals on track to obtain their Ph.D.s can unfortunately expect when they enter academia.

These frighteningly low wages – some schools pay as little as $1,000 per course, so you do the math – force adjuncts to take on as many classes as possible, spreading themselves thin as they make ends meet while compromising time that should be allotted for students and research. They can teach anything from 200-student introductory lectures to 30-student mathematics discussion courses at anywhere from community colleges to Ivy League universities.

These positions that now make up over half of university instructors, according to the American Association of University Professors, leave individuals uncertain about their career and income. It’s not a risk-averse lifestyle; stories have been coming out since 2010 of adjunct instructors living off of food stamps and other public services, laden with debt and short of insurance.

This prevalent “adjunctivitis” is exploitative; Marx would be the first to tell us that. But I also think that it reveals the greater reality of funding within and toward higher education. Colleges and universities are tightening their faculty budgets, and especially at state schools we’re seeing less funding as cuts continue to climb.

At the same time, if we understand colleges working as businesses in a free market industry, we confront the fact that they’re willing to minimize costs with a lot of cheap labor. Just this month, lawmakers in Colorado attempted to implement regulations by approving a bill that would ensure  more job security and benefits for adjunct instructors, along with higher salaries with incremental increases that have potential to reduce the disparities between full-time and part-time workers.

Risks involved with this kind of bill go back to basic economics: Higher wages will push the college to take on fewer positions, and scarcity of classes may arise. Those individuals that will benefit have more workplace mobility and time for the aforementioned pitfalls of adjunct positions. It has its strengths and weaknesses, just as anything, but it’s more than most states can tout for the equivalent of modern-day child labor reform.

In her class syllabi, Distinguished Teaching Professor of English Beth McCoy outlines full-time and part-time faculty labor in a lengthy explanation of the “adjunct crisis,” closing with strong rhetoric: “What does this mean for these human beings and teachers, for you as human beings and undergraduates, and for you as human beings who are preparing to enter a world where many institutions and individuals will expect you to work for very little (and even for free) and with no security whatsoever?”

Understanding the inner workings of higher education is a challenge. What needs to happen is an in-depth look into both part-time and full-time instructors and how we provide for the people that are educating each successive generation. What we have currently is not sustainable.