Crisis in Higher Education

By Jennifer Garvin-Sanchez, Ph.D.

Last October Time Magazine devoted the cover and much of an entire issue to “Reinventing Higher Education.”  According to a survey sponsored by TIME and the Carnegie Corporation, 89 percent of U.S. adults and 96 percent of senior administrators at colleges and universities said higher education is in crisis, and nearly four in 10 in both groups considered the crisis to be “severe.” TIME had gathered more than 100 college presidents and other experts to talk about the biggest problems facing higher education, which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan summed up as “high prices, low completion rates, and too little accountability.”

High prices were blamed on competition for fancy gyms and buildings, and the cost of hiring high-profile faculty. However, I doubt that anyone assembled there mentioned that most members of the faculty at our public institutions are not high-profile faculty earning high salaries, but adjunct faculty earning barely a living wage. According to a new report 76% of the faculty in undergraduate education at public universities is now adjunct.  (see .) Also unnoted was the decrease in public support for higher education, which has been declining for years.

Is college worth it?

Time also conducted a web based poll in early October that focused on the rising cost of college tuitions, student debt (an average of $25,250 for graduates in 2010), and the lack of jobs for graduates. These questions then led to the last inquiry:  is a college education worth the price?  Eighty percent of U.S. adults answered that at many colleges, the cost of the education students receive is not worth it.

As an adjunct instructor at a large public university, I see these poll responses reflected in my classrooms. I have students who work full time, take full-time course loads, and do internships or service learning.  How can they possibly find time to study?  They can’t.  As a result academic standards are suffering.  If they aren’t working full time, they are in debt.

Even working full-time students find their jobs cover only living expenses, requiring them to borrow to pay for tuition.  The national student debt load has now reached over one trillion dollars, compared by some sources to the sub-prime mortgage crisis – the next big bubble about to break. This debt not only slows economic growth, it limits the ability of graduates to follow their dreams, forcing them to opt for the highest paying jobs available. Researchers have found that student debt now amounts to 8% of all U.S. household debt, up from 3% as recently as 2007.  This is at a time when 53% of college graduates under age 25 are either unemployed or underemployed in jobs that don’t require a college degree.

What most “experts” are missing is that universities are increasingly being asked to do the impossible: to graduate more students ready for a job market that has crashed, and to do it with less and less resources. Between 2000 and 2010, funding per student for higher education from states and localities fell by 21%. This followed decades of disinvestment in higher education. No wonder there have been massive tuition hikes.

Faculties going part time

To balance their increasingly tight budgets, universities have responded as other “businesses” have over the last 40 years – by hiring fewer full-time employees to save costs of salaries and benefits.  Most people are familiar with the system of tenure for professors, a system which protects academic freedom from political and social repercussions, and so most people mistakenly think that most faculty are tenure track professors.  But the time when this was the case has long gone.  Universities now mostly hire part-time adjunct instructors.

In 1970, only 22% of college faculty was part-time. Today almost three-quarters of the faculty teaching undergraduates are part-time instructors – working in jobs that are low-pay, have no job security, and offer no benefits. In this system no one benefits, neither the teachers nor the students.

Adjuncts train 5 to 10 years to earn a Ph.D., for which they should be compensated in relation to the cost of acquiring such an education.  But adjuncts work as contract employees, paid a set amount for each course taught, in my case $2,550 per course. (To see salaries across the nation see ).

Pay low, benefits lower 

Just so you can get an idea of what adjuncts teaching a full teaching load make, I’ll break the taboo about talking about money and tell you what I make. In 2010 I made $18,135 teaching three courses in the Spring and Fall semesters and one in the summer. That translated into $1,650 every month after taxes during semesters.  Of course, in December, July and August I made no income at all.  Still, 2010 was not a bad year for me. 2009 was much worse, because in both the Spring and Fall semesters I taught only two courses each semester and so took home only $13,035.

Even worse than the low compensation for adjuncts is the lack of job security. We work from semester to semester with no annual contract, not knowing how many courses we can count on for income. Then of course, there is the serious problem of not having any benefits – no health insurance and no retirement through our jobs. Health insurance alone eats over a quarter of my paycheck each month.  Apparently as the Affordable Health Care Act becomes effective in 2014, state schools will be required to provide health care for adjuncts such as myself who teach 3 courses a semester, and have done so for years, without healthcare. That means that schools (remember 76% of instructors are now adjuncts) will either be forced to lower the amount of courses people can teach if they are adjunct, or pay for health care for massive amounts of people. This means that by 2014 state universities are facing a ticking time bomb, as we now are the majority of instructors. Will we all be laid off? Will they find the money to provide for health care for all of us? Will they lower the amount of courses we can teach, making it impossible to live off of teaching?

Universities act as businesses

I believe the reason most universities hire adjuncts is that they have fallen into the trap of thinking of the university as a business. In order to grow as other businesses, we need more students (consumers who purchase our services) and businesses who purchase the end product (graduated students), and we need to graduate them at cheaper production rates.  How do we lower production costs at a university?  Hire more adjuncts, and don’t worry about whether we are graduating educated citizens who can think for themselves.  We have to worry about creating products for the job market, which means paying attention to business schools, engineering schools, computer sciences, etc., while giving the humanities short shrift.

But the university is not a business like any other.  The purpose of a university is not simply to produce students for the job market (although that should be one of the results), but to create and produce knowledge, to stimulate new ideas and thinking, and to provide a space for scholarly research that contributes to the betterment of all of humankind, as well as to pass on this knowledge and research to future generations.

Most of the solutions to the crisis in higher education cited by the experts rely on new technology to save higher education.  The rise in MOOC’s, massive open online courses, is supposed to save universities hundreds of thousands of dollars because they will be able to teach thousands through the work of a small number of super-star professors.

But while they skimp on faculty, universities are building bigger and fancier buildings to keep up with the “competition,” as administrators pointed out. Meanwhile the number of non-faculty professionals has mushroomed nearly 240 percent, growing more than three times as fast as the faculty. Coaching staff and salaries have grown astronomically. The size of presidential salaries rivals that of business CEOs, more than $1 million in several dozen cases.

Universities must reverse this disastrous trend, and a good start would be to begin treating adjuncts as essential employees to be compensated in relationship to the essential nature of their work, with job security and adequate benefits.

What would that mean for the university and students?  One of the most direct benefits would be a more stable faculty with instructors having time and energy to plan and prepare well for their courses.  There would be less turnover among adjunct faculty, which would mean better teaching.  Students learn best when they develop relationships with their teachers, and these relationships most often are fostered outside of the classroom with faculty who are on campus.  As the system works now, adjuncts gain experience and then leave, taking that experience with them.

These steps might raise education costs, but whether that would mean tuition increases would depend on whether there is political will to fund higher education through state and local budgets.

We can fix higher education, but only if we reverse the current trends.  There is no reason for public education to be free only through the 12th grade.  We have raised the level of publicly financed education in the past; we can raise it again.  The only ones benefiting from this system are again, you guessed it, the banks who are lending money for student loans. If students are to be able to really learn, the burden of expensive tuition and debt must be lifted from their shoulders and the relationship between teacher and student restored.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s