Next week, when the president re-announces his “free community college” plan during the State of the Union address, I’d like to see him add a sentence about the teachers.
They’ve been missing in the White House language promoting the plan. None of the critics, even those who have said mean things about community colleges, have mentioned the plight of part-time community-college teachers. With a few exceptions, such as this Chronicle piece by Peter Schmidt, the journalism surrounding the plan has focused on students, costs, and consequences. Nothing we do to change higher education in this country will matter if the students are mostly being taught by overworked, underpaid, contingent labor.
It is now the job of professional organizations (especially those with a presence in D.C.), faculty members lucky enough to have full-time work, and all advocates for economic justice to unite on this issue. We need to elevate the voices of those who are most engaged in adjunct advocacy, stand with them, and speak up ourselves. If we, as a country, are going to send more people to college, those new students should find well-supported full-time teachers waiting for them when they arrive.
A majority of community-college classes and community-college students are taught by part-time faculty members. The reasons for this differ on a case-by-case basis. Some schools are driven, for example, by state legislation to employ workers without benefits. The overwhelming trend, though, is clear. Even as enrollments have increased, community colleges, like other institutions of higher education, have met the demand by hiring contract labor.
Experts differ on the precise numbers, in part due to various definitions of “part time” and the samples used for a given study. The Center for Community College Student Engagement issued a report that said 58 percent of all faculty members at such schools work part time. The Center for the Future of Higher Education estimated in another report that 70 percent of all community-college faculty members were part-timers. Either way, the number is too high and growing rapidly. Both cited a 2009 study of 400,000 community-college hires, of which 70 percent were part-time faculty members.
Gary Rhoades, the author of the Center for the Future of Higher Education report, noted that although there had been a surge in community-college enrollments during the recession, that increase had been met almost entirely by hiring contingent labor. Left unchecked, the White House proposal may well send more students to college, but based on the past, they will mostly not be taught by full-timers.
The Center for Community College Student Engagement report focused on trying to make tangible the differences between part-time and full-time faculty members in terms of course preparation, likelihood of referring students to advising or financial aid, and access to faculty development. Naturally, part-timers generally did less preparation per class and were less likely to refer students to the services they might need. That’s not, of course, the fault of the adjuncts. The work is hard, the pay is low, and it’s easy to get demoralized. Adjuncts frequently have to teach more than a normal load to even come close to making ends meet.
In most cases, the people trying to make a living through adjunct teaching at community colleges become what Elle magazine recently called “the hypereducated poor.” That even Elle published a piece on adjuncts shows the spread of awareness about the plight of contingent faculty members, and yet they’ve still been missing from the discussion of the free-community-college proposal.
There are exceptions. Unions can and have made a difference in wage scales. Many community colleges employ experts in a craft or profession as part-time teachers. This is a fine practice. The key is that we all need to embrace the core principle that students pursuing two-year degrees should mostly be taught by full-time faculty members who are paid a good wage, with benefits. President Obama has said that education is the key to more middle-class jobs for Americans. Shouldn’t those American students be taught by professors who themselves have attained the middle class?
I don’t think that the president’s proposal stands much chance of becoming law. I also don’t think that’s the current goal. Rather, an announcement like this is intended to start a national conversation. It’s worked. #FreeCommunityCollege trended for days on Twitter and made front-page news across the country. As the White House said, reacting to the coverage, “Simply put: This is a big deal.”
“Free Community College” supports the premise that higher education is a public good. For too long, much of the central rhetoric about higher education has focused on what our institutions could learn from businesses. Unfortunately, one of the things we’ve learned is that we can get by for a long time with temps and contract workers. Now, we have a chance to push back.
Individually, there’s not too much we can do about the adjunct crisis except to treat the adjuncts we work with as colleagues. United, we have a voice. Write to your professional organizations. Ask them to reach out to the administration and labor leaders. Let’s make the argument that the needs of future students and the needs of future faculty members are inextricably linked.
David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University. His blog is How Did We Get Into This Mess? He writes on occasion for The Chronicle and Vitae. Follow him on Twitter @lollardfish.