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Are we at end of the adjunct game?
How the demographics may be upending a model
Higher education is in a state of flux. Although the stories differ among global regions, the stresses of falling new student counts and challenging placement rates are evident.
Recent events suggest that a fire is smoldering below the surface with the adjunct faculty model. Articles describing strikes at The New School in New York and other institutions such as the University of California paint an interesting picture. The New York faculty reportedly earn $4,000 per course. At this rate, adjunct faculty would need to teach 14 courses per year to reach an average salary in the city, hardly a manageable workload.
It’s even worse at other institutions where the pay per course is often half of the amount reported above. According to studies by The New Faculty Majority, adjunct or contingent faculty are at least half of the total higher education faculty.
Taken together, the situation paints a picture of a highly-educated, underpaid, and over-worked workforce attempting to educate the key workers in tomorrow’s economy. This does not point to a positive future.
How did we get here?
The wave of using adjuncts began around 40 years ago and is no accident given the demographics of the time. At that time a large and well-educated generation, the Boomers, was entering the workforce. Many wanted higher education to advance their careers. The corporate penchant for downsizing and pay reductions also meant that there was a workforce looking for a side gig to fill the gap. That is changing.
More than anything, demographics may foretell the end of the adjunct model.
The successor generations to the Boomers are better educated yet have less economic mobility. For the Millennials and Gen Z, faith in higher education as a ticket to wealth and economic mobility has been broken by a succession of economic crises. Thus, the demand for higher education is falling.
Furthermore, corporate downsizing has moved on to the next phase to create the gig economy, where the side gig is now one’s entire job. Low-paying adjunct teaching may not be even as attractive as being a food delivery person or a YouTuber. The supply of eager adjunct faculty is lacking.
Being in the wrong 1%
A few years ago, I was teaching as an adjunct at a well-known national university. Over the years of my teaching, the number of students in my classes had steadily increased but my pay had not. There were plenty of reasons such as that ed-tech had made my job easier. Hardly!
At the time of teaching my last course with this university, I did a simple math calculation to compare the tuition paid by students for the course to my pay. The calculation showed me that I had arrived at the 1%, but not the one we might hope for!
The exclusive 1% group I had entered was that my pay was 1% of student tuition. My expensive advanced degrees and decades of teaching the subject were essentially valued as a rounding error. Student acquisition cost for those students, i.e. marketing and sales, was easily 10 times my pay. Nice!
A looming crisis of credibility
Understandably, the generations entering the majority of our societies are skeptical of the economic benefits of higher education. The low pay and high workloads of adjunct faculty only confirm and contribute to this negative narrative.
An educational sector that touts its ability to unlock opportunity yet provides none to its workers, faces a crisis of credibility.
Where to from here?
Falling enrollments, a workforce demographic dearth, and the crisis of credibility of the higher education sector all point to the need for change. It will no longer be credible to invite adjunct faculty to the 1% club that I entered.
So what is the answer?
As tenure has been destroyed, unions often seek to enter the mix. Such a move will shift the balance of power more towards adjunct and contingent faculty but may face limits. Faculty often see themselves, whether true or not, as elite and are reluctant to join a union regardless of potential benefits.
The intriguing idea of faculty forming worker-owned or worker- and stakeholder-owned cooperatives.
An intriguing idea is one of faculty banding together in what are essentially self-governing worker cooperatives. Although such a move may seem far-fetched, it has actually been around for quite some time. These coops are not the corner health food store, which is a customer-owned cooperative, but places where the workers are the owners, hold the capital, and direct the enterprise.
Teacher-powered schools have been described by Jackall and Levin going back decades in their book Worker Cooperatives in America. The Mondragon Cooperative University in Spain is comprised of three worker-owned coops and has been in existence since 1997.
In Minnesota in the U.S. the Minnesota Service Cooperatives (MSC), a series of stakeholder-owned coops, provides critical services to rural K-12 schools. It has evolved to its present form in 2001.
The adjunct model existing for the past few decades is perhaps “past the shelf life” of the idea. Promising new models including worker- and stakeholder-owned coops are solutions worth examining.
Making coops happen in higher education.
States such as Colorado and California have updated coop laws to allow new forms of coops such as the limited cooperative association, which allows investors and workers to share ownership. Exploring such a solution is needed and overdue.
More on that in the coming issues of the Ex4EDU.Report.