It is just after 7 p.m. on a Monday in April. Upbeat electronic dance music softly plays in Harford Community College’s gym as Jordan McKeon calls roll on the first day of PE 106: Cardiorespiratory Endurance Exercise.
The class of 15 stands around exercise equipment as the evening sun sinks down to shine through the new gym’s wall of windows. The athletics building, just over a year old, still looks fresh, with lots of glass, exposed metal beams and the school’s signature shade of medium blue.
Like many first classes, today’s focus is the syllabus. McKeon shows it on one of the large computer displays over a row of treadmills. For the most part it is a standard syllabus – course description, attendance policy, proper attire and office hours.
“My office hours are… well let me explain part of my life,” McKeon says.
At 7 a.m. she teaches a gym class at Harford Community College. Then she goes to one of two elementary schools where she has bus duty. After that McKeon teaches physical education at an with elementary school. Finally, she returns to Harford to be a gym monitor until it is time to teach PE 106 at 7 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she teaches aqua-fitness.
Some days she goes to the gym at 5:30 a.m. so she has time for her work out. McKeon is also in her last year of graduate school. She is studying administration and supervision at Notre Dame of Maryland University.
The short block of time when McKeon is monitoring the gym are her office hours.
“So if you guys want to talk to me, let me know,” McKeon says. “That time before class is all I have available.”
McKeon’s days are full by choice. She admits to being an intense person and it has paid off: She owns a house and new car at 27.
“Once my days start they are unstoppable,” McKeon said.
Life could be a lot easier for McKeon, an adjunct professor at Harford Community College. Her goal is to become a full-time college professor. Then working multiple jobs would be a choice, not a near necessity.
But for now, jam-packed days are the norm for McKeon and other adjunct professors, a growing sector of academia. These part-time professors typically can teach up to three classes per educational institution. For this reason they often work at multiple colleges and universities. They are paid per course and do not receive benefits. There is little job security semester to semester. Adjuncts trying to make a living from teaching they almost always have to supplement it with a job outside academia.
In the recent past, adjuncts were typically experienced professionals still working in their field or recently retired who taught classes to supplement their income. A variety of changes in higher education and government policy have led to a transformation in the composition of the adjunct workforce, said Anne McLeer, director of higher education and strategic planning with Service Employees International Union Local 500.The SEIU represents adjuncts at eight colleges in Washington D.C. and Maryland.
Adjuncts are a broad variety of people at different places in their careers and with different goals. Joe Netta wants a full-time position but currently teaches sculpture and design part-time at four colleges, maintains a personal art practice and works as a contractor to help pay his bills. Jeff Rollinger recently moved into a full-time position leading a photography department after teaching as an adjunct for about four years. Gina Pierleoni has been teaching painting as an adjunct for 20 years and has no plans to become a full-time professor. She wants to improve pay and working conditions for other part-time teachers.
Higher education institutions are now in a situation where an increasing number of their faculty are undercompensated and overworked. The SEIU and other groups are working to bring changes that will again make college teaching a stabile, middle class career for the majority of people in the field. But change has not been easy.
Adjunct professors – also called part-time faculty, contingent faculty or instructors – have been growing as a share of the academic workforce since the 1970’s, McLeer said.
In 1975 full-time faculty, who worked at least 40 hours a week, were about 55 percent of higher education instructors in a combination of tenure, non-tenure, and tenure-track positions, according to a United States Department of Education study. Adjuncts were about 25 percent of instructional staff. Graduate students made up the remainder. Over time, the most stable full-time tenure and tenure-track positions steadily fell. At the same time, less secure non-tenure track positions, adjuncts and graduate students grew as a share of higher education instructional staff.
Adjunct positions grew the most. In 2011 adjuncts were more than 40 percent of instructional staff. Some studies place that number even higher at 50 to 70 percent today, depending on the category of institution.
The inversion of the full-time and part-time workforce was not necessarily planned or intentional. TIAA-CREF Institute reported, the change was incremental. Administrators could reduce costs or increase flexibility by using a few more adjuncts each year. Soon part-timers out numbered full time instructors. Long-term institutional goals were not considered when labor models changed.
Over time, pressure to keep costs down motivated administrators to use low-cost adjuncts over more expensive full-time instructors.
“Often you can see in the budget of a big private institution the amount of money spent on adjuncts to teach 40 percent of the courses, is four or five percent of the instruction budget,” McLeer said.
Most adjuncts are paid $2,000 to $2,500 to teach a three-credit course, according to a House Committee on Education and the Workforce report. Pay is a flat rate based on credit hours and not tied to the actual amount of work devoted to a course. Part-timers do not receive benefits.
“For five classes and 20 independent study students, that’s for the year, I might make $17,000,” said Gina Pierleoni, a part-time drawing, painting and mixed media professor at Harford Community College. “And I have 20 years of teaching experience. One can’t support oneself on that.”
“The people who are suffering are not only the adjuncts but the students,” Pierleoni said.
Despite all this, adjuncts often bring a passion to their work and are dedicated to their students.
Though many complain about work conditions and pay, adjuncts said they try not to let that affect their instruction.
“As an adjunct instructor I wanted to give my students my full attention as an instructor,” said Jeff Rollinger, term faculty overseeing the photography department at Harford Community College. “But it didn’t change the fact that I was holding three jobs, and had classes across multiple institutions.”
That is the big balancing act adjuncts face – how to maintain their busy schedules and give students everything they would like to give.
In fall 2014 Rollinger achieved the goal most adjuncts have – he became a full-time faculty member. He now can dedicate his time solely to his classes and students.
“My god, filing cabinets and a desk – I can’t tell you how amazing that is to have,” said Rollinger as he sat at his desk in an office with stacks of files, books and photographic equipment.
Added Rollinger: “If you could have seen my car last year, which was my filing cabinet verses the stacks of things I now have on a desk, it makes my life feel so much more organized.”
Rollinger taught as an adjunct at Yuba Community College in California after getting his MFA from Academy of Art University. In 2010 he returned to Maryland and started teaching at Harford Community College where he once was a student and a volunteer in the photography program. He was also teaching part-time at Ann Arundel Community College.
“You’re always after as many [classes] as you can get when you’re teaching adjunct,” Rollinger said. “For an adjunct to teach four or five courses in a semester it certainly doesn’t add up to what a full time instructor gets for four or five classes.”
He later added a part-time studio aid position at HCC that required him to cutback to teaching one class at the college. The position was paid hourly and was categorized as staff, not instructional.
“I’d rather be a teacher over a studio aid but I couldn’t turn down that regular paycheck,” Rollinger said.
Working a staff position to earn additional income is a strategy other adjuncts use.
Joe Netta, an adjunct in the ceramics and sculpture department at HCC, teaches at four colleges. He works as a studio aid in HCC’s ceramics and sculpture department too. But that is not where the majority of his money comes from.
Netta makes the majority of his income from a contracting company he owns and runs.
“If I’m not working at a school I’m at a job site,” Netta said while sitting at a desk in a shared office. Almost identical to Rollinger’s office, but filled with heaps of art supplies, papers and a even a full size refrigerator in one corner.
All these positions allow Netta to support his own art. His sculptures and drawings explore ideas in communication, truth and memory.
“I spend a lot of time in my studio,” Netta said. “My work deals with liminal space, the space in between things and how information is transferred.”
Netta would like a full-time position that would offer more stability, but the odds aren’t in his favor.
“Full time is where I’m heading towards and that could be anywhere,” Netta said. “I’m applying to jobs in California, Michigan, I’m applying all over the U.S.”
Added Rollinger: “It’s extremely competitive. There might be across the United States a dozen to 20 jobs that become available in a year. I would venture to say that 150 to 200 applicants will apply to those positions.”
There is nothing wrong with adjunct professors, just how many are working in education today, Rollinger said. They want to teach and that is always something to be encouraged, he said.
“But to let an institution be 70 percent adjunct and 30 percent tenured [national statistic on photography programs] I think that’s appalling,” Rollinger said. “The students and the institution are not going to get the same kind of dedication and commitment from a handful of adjunct instructors that they could possibly get from one or two tenure track or extended term professors.”
The amount adjuncts can work now has an additional layer of complication and restriction as a conscience of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Anyone who averages 30 hours a week at a single employer over a 12-month period must be offered benefits, said Katie Callan, director for human resources and employee development at Harford Community College.
Adjuncts are compensated for the number of courses they teach, not the actual time spent on teaching courses. But the 30-hour threshold still applies to them using, what the Internal Revenue Service calls, reasonable methods of crediting hours of service, Callan said.
The IRS guidelines state that each credit hour equals 2.25 hours worked. If a professor teaches three courses at three credits each they have 20.25 hours of service for the week.
“We are only budgeted for a position to cost so much,” Callan said. “Once we add benefits to a position, it may seem outrageous but it adds about 38 percent to the cost of that job.”
Individuals can only become benefits eligible counting hours at one employer. This means adjuncts can work as much as they want so long as it is spread over multiple institutions. Professors who also work hourly positions, like Netta and formerly Rollinger, have to decide if they want to teach classes or cutback and work in more stable non-instructional positions.
“I find that more often than not, they don’t want the benefits, they want the other job,” Callan said. “They’re not able to get that extra income because they can’t work those two jobs or else they flip into eligibility.”
Adjuncts have been working to improve their conditions and have found success in some cases.
At Montgomery College, a community college in Montgomery County, Maryland, adjuncts formed a union and have since been able to negotiate a contract. Adjuncts are now included in meetings with college administrators and have more security in their positions, McLeer said.
“They’ve really established themselves as a stake-holding group,” McLeer said.
But for many working at Maryland’s public institutions unions with powers like that are not an option. The state must grant public employees the right to collectively bargain. With the exception of adjuncts working for Montgomery County, part-time professors do not have that right. Those seeking to unionize at private institutions do not face such restrictions.
“They can’t have collective bargaining,” McLeer said. “But they can have a union in the meaning of a community of workers coming together to mobilize and change things. This is where support from students is very important.”
“I can tell you this much, they’re not going to go away,” McLeer said. “Because adjuncts are mad as hell and they are not going to take it anymore.”