Academic Underclass

Dumming Down?At a Harvard University commencement a few years back, some graduates were asked a question: What makes the seasons change? Responses varied. A few said it had to do with fluctuating distances between the earth and sun. Others attributed it to solar flares. No one -- not even a couple of professors who ventured an opinion -- got it right.Some educators believe that examples like this illustrate a big problem in American universities: the "dumming down" of higher education. They argue that although students are paying more to go to college, they're learning less; that as more and more young men and women with marginal abilities are admitted to a universities, standards inevitably erode; and that anymore, colleges -- relying more on part-time instructors and shifting toward open enrollment and lenient grading standards -- are simply not as good as they were 20 or 30 years ago.On the other hand, some college administrators argue that the issue is not declining standards but, rather, shifting priorities. In other words, times have changed and what was relevant 30 years ago is not necessarily so today. Hence, although colleges rely more and more on less expensive part-timers to teach their courses, those instructors -- many of whom work in business or industry -- bring valuable experience from the working world into the otherwise cloistered "ivory tower." And while many college graduates may not be able to pinpoint Baghdad on a map or name the Secretary of State or -- in response to the Harvard question -- explain that summer and winter are caused by the tilt of Earth's axis with respect to the sun, they have mastered some crucial 21st century skills. Today's college graduates may not know the Bill of Rights, but they're light years ahead of where most of their 1960s counterparts were when it comes to computer technology, environmental issues and the stock market. Despite these differences of opinion, there have been several trends in the last 30 years that have unquestionably affected the type and quality of education students are receiving at universities across the United States. Among them: * More and more students with greater variances in academic abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds are entering college. * While the cost of going to college over the past 25 years has nearly doubled the rate of inflation, across the country part-time instructors -- so-called adjuncts -- are replacing full-time professors in the classroom and working for less money, fewer benefits and no guarantees of continued employment.* Grade Point Averages (G.P.A.s) -- the measure of a student's overall academic achievement -- have been creeping up over the past 20 years. This has happened despite composite ACT and SAT scores -- tests that measure college-bound high school students' verbal and math skills -- remaining essentially unchanged. Grade inflation, like currency inflation, has significantly devalued the once outstanding A and relegated a B to an average mark. For many students, a C, which once signified satisfactory college level achievement, now represents academic failure. Ds and Fs are fast disappearing.All this adds up to more students than ever before graduating with higher G.P.A.s. from colleges that increasingly depend on adjuncts to teach their classes. And while many of these part-timers are skilled professionals, many do not have training or experience in classroom teaching. These trends raise a couple of important questions about the merits of a university education: Do students get the same quality of instruction from adjuncts as they do from full-time instructors? Does grade inflation undermine the value of a college degree? The answer to both questions is yes.Meet the Academic UnderclassIn The American Almanac of Jobs and Salaries, 1997-1998, John Wright reported that 40 percent of all college teaching jobs are held by adjuncts, up from 22 percent in 1970. That number is even higher at junior colleges across the country. According to the November 1997 Chronicle of Higher Education, 64 percent of all faculty at two-year colleges are part-timers. If academia does have an economic underclass, it must certainly be the approximately 360,000 adjuncts in the field of nearly 900,000 university professors who teach America's 14 million college students. When compared to the average salaries of full-time instructors and assistant, associate and full-time professors in the United States, adjuncts run a far, far distant fifth (see graph).In 1994-95, average salaries broke down as follows: full-professors, $63,450 ($78,890 with benefits); associate professors, $47,040 ($59,350 with benefits); assistant professors, $39,050 ($49,350 with benefits); and full-time instructors (also referred to as lecturers), $29,680 ($37,870 with benefits). It should be noted that assistant, associate and full professors, in addition to teaching assignments, are also contracted to supervise doctoral dissertations, head committees and produce scholarly articles and books. However, full-time instructors usually aren't, and adjuncts who teach an annual course load comparable to those faculty members would be hard-pressed to earn $15,000. That's something this reporter can attest to from personal experience.Full-Time Work, Part-Time Pay ... For two academic years, beginning in 1990, I worked as an adjunct English instructor at Clark State Community College in Springfield and Wright State University in Dayton. Each year I taught a total of four, 10-week terms, which added up to 14 classes and approximately 330 students. Most of my classes were basic freshman composition courses, and all told, with revisions, I read, corrected and graded approximately 4,000 essays -- approximately 2 million words -- the equivalent of 20 average length books. It was by most accounts a larger load than what most full-time college English teachers carry.Based on a wage of $1,000 per course, after I tallied up the number of hours I spent teaching, grading, and preparing lectures during that period, my gross pay amounted to less than $10 an hour. It was an income comparable to that of the 110,000 part-time U.P.S. drivers, who, before striking last August, earned less than half the hourly wages of their full-time counterparts. And like the trend at U.P.S. -- where more than 80 percent of the unionized jobs the company added since 1993 were part-time -- more and more colleges across Ohio, as in the rest of the country, are relying on adjuncts to teach courses in all disciplines. The reason is simple economics: it's a lot cheaper to hire an instructor on a course-by-course basis than it is to employ a full-timer for two or even three times the cost when adding in benefits and substantially higher pay. Typically, a full-time lecturer or instructor at an Ohio college or university with a master's degree or Ph.D. might teach 10 or 12 courses a year and earn $25-$30,000. By comparison, an adjunct, teaching the same number of classes at $1,000 or $1,200 a course, would earn less than half as much as the full-timer. And unlike the full-time instructor who is guaranteed a yearly salary, the adjunct is simply out of luck -- and out of money -- if his or her scheduled class doesn't enroll enough students to run.Too Many Profs, Too Few JobsLike many other professions across the country, it's become an issue of supply and demand: there's a glut of qualified college teachers in many academic specialties competing for fewer and fewer full-time positions. Average size state universities often receive more than 100 applications for a single instructor position, many from candidates with Ph.D.s and several years teaching experience under their belts. And for prestigious tenure-track associate or assistant professor positions ranging from $40,000- $50,000 a year, there are sometimes 400 applications for a single slot -- virtually all with Ph.D.s and many with published books and scholarly articles in their portfolios.In the late 1970s some demographers predicted that a large number of college professors who started their careers in the 1960s would begin retiring in the late-1990s, thus creating a huge demand for replacements. But while the old guard gradually departed, the replacements came en-masse and colleges and universities quickly realized that one expensive tenured professor could be replaced at half the cost, or less, from a huge pool of over-qualified replacements. When it comes to the primary job at hand -- teaching -- there is usually no significant difference in skill level between equally trained and experienced adjuncts and full-time instructors at the college level -- at least not one that can be effectively measured.In most instances, the only criteria used for administrative assessment of teaching performance comes at the end of the term when students complete brief evaluative summaries of their instructors. Unfortunately, unless a professor is blatantly incompetent, most students, especially undergraduates, routinely give their teachers -- adjuncts and full-timers alike -- favorable ratings. Peer reviews are rare, and many instructors -- full-time or adjunct -- are never observed or evaluated by department heads. In 10 years of teaching college English, I've received only two brief comments from evaluators, neither of which related to what I was doing in the classroom. Despite all this, I've enjoyed teaching, and during the past 10 years I've been at both ends of the spectrum -- full-time faculty and adjunct instructor. And although I've worked hard in both roles, like anyone else in any other occupation, my attitude and overall performance was much better when I received a higher wage. Teaching may be the noble profession, but you still have to pay the bills.Pinching PenniesIn 1995, Richard Bullock, the director of Wright State's writing program, and William Smith, a professor at Western Washington University, conducted a nationwide random survey of freshman English courses funded by the Council of Writing Program Administration. They received 108 usable responses from both two- and four-year colleges. Regarding the question "Who teaches first year freshman composition?" Bullock and Smith discovered that a combination of adjuncts and teaching assistants (graduate students) -- most with less than five-years teaching experience -- taught 66 percent of those courses. Professors and non-tenured faculty made up the remaining 34 percent. The survey also revealed that 91 percent of freshman English teachers were white, 58 percent being women."My sense has been that nationally there's been a move toward greater reliance on adjuncts," Bullock said. "That's been going on for probably 10 years or more."The trend toward using less experienced instructors at colleges and universities is not restricted to the United States or to state colleges. In "A Survey of Universities" in October 1997, The Economist reported that "the complaint of undergraduates at elite research universities around the world is that they are taught mainly by graduate students and teaching assistants, while top academics concentrate on the business of research and publication upon which the advancement of their own careers chiefly depends."In the United States, things have changed drastically in terms of who's teaching whom. Bill Scanlon reported that at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, tenure track professors were teaching one-sixth of the math students during the fall term. Graduate students and other non-tenured instructors taught another sixth. But two-thirds -- over 5,000 students -- were being instructed primarily by computers or tapes -- so called distance education -- with little or no face -to-face access to professors. Scanlon also noted that at Denver's Metropolitan State College of business, salaries in relation to class loads averaged out to $63 per student for adjunct professors compared to tenure track professors who averaged $297. Bullock said that universities have come to rely on adjuncts for a couple of important reasons. One of them is the flexibility they offer."[Universities] don't have people who are locked into jobs that are very hard to fire them from. And [adjuncts] work cheaper than anybody else. So there's a lot of incentives for universities to move toward adjuncts. And it's being accelerated by the move to distance learning -- using computerized and televised courses." Bullock said another reason colleges in Ohio are relying more and more on adjuncts is -- despite the ever increasing hikes in tuition -- they're pinched for money."Twenty years ago most of the funding for state schools came from the state. Now we're really more state-assisted universities than state universities. The amount of money we get from the state has gone down considerably over the years."In lieu of those pressures, Bullock said that universities tend to look for places where they can cut corners. "If you can replace a full-time faculty member with a bunch of adjuncts, there are really compelling reasons to do so."One of the reasons universities can rely on adjuncts and pay them so little is people will work for [low wages]," Bullock said. "For most of my career I've always known people who weren't teaching for the money. A lot of them were people who were working at other jobs during the day but loved to teach. They love to keep their hand in the classroom. And I've had more than one [adjunct] say 'I'd [teach] for nothing.' "And that creates a real ethical dilemma for me. Because on the one hand I feel adjuncts should be paid better. But on the other hand I have to ask myself, 'Is the university exploiting people who look at what they're doing for the university as some sort of bonus in their own lives?' It's a real tough call."A Labor of LoveByron Crews, 34, a blues guitarist and first-year adjunct professor of English at Wright State who recently earned his masters degree in creative writing, exemplifies Bullock's ethical dilemma."Teaching is something I was born to do," Crews said. "It gives my life meaning and purpose the way nothing else can. It feeds me in the same way my music, my family, and my fiction do. And it puts me in touch with myself and the community. "So when it comes to the pay thing, well, I know that there are people out there who would do this for free. And I'm afraid I'm one of them. It's a sort of gradual realization I've come to, even though the money is hardly enough to support a family."Like most adjuncts in his department, Crews teaches two classes each 10-week term and earns $1,000 per course. Crews, who is married to a tenure track theater professor at W.S.U.and has a 2-year-old son, said that his two years experience as a teaching assistant prepared him for his first paid position as a college instructor."I'm not just teaching people how to write. I'm teaching people, in effect, how to be successful students and in some sense, how to live. I feel that making myself available to students is an important part of my work. It's about self-disclosure, about revealing aspects of my own life -- making a connection and loosening people up. It's helping students get in touch with their own [writer's] voice, and it's part of my philosophy."Crews said that despite the negative connotations often associated with adjunct teaching, he doesn't feel shunned. "The professors at Wright State make me feel like I'm more than just an adjunct."Nevertheless, Crews is sensitive about the pay discrepancies between adjuncts and full-time faculty and the whole issue of supply and demand."Labor deserves its hire," Crews said. "And that's something my old man raised me up with: When you get a job, ask how much they're paying first. Make sure you're going to get paid for it."But it's tough when you've got your nose pressed against the glass of academia. When you're looking in, and you've got this skill and you know you can do it well, but you also know standing right behind you is someone who can do it as well or maybe even better -- and for free. That changes the whole playing field."I've had people come up to me and say, 'Well, now that you've got your master's degree and now that you're an adjunct, what are you going to do with your life?' It's like it's not enough to be a teacher, an instructor of English at a university. On one level it's disillusioning to realize that the university has created, in a sense, an underclass and that I'm a part of that underclass."But Crews said he isn't bitter about that. "When I get up in the morning to go teach, I'm excited. And one of the best things for me is to see that student with his ball cap pulled down over his eyes, and everything about his body posture says he's not there. That's the guy I want to turn on to writing because I know he's probably had a bad experience with it. "But when you know that somebody else is doing the same thing for a lot more money, it's tough."A Balancing ActKaren Wells, Ed.D, vice president for instruction at Sinclair Community College, said that there is a positive side to using adjunct professors in colleges and universities. She believes that many of her college's adjunct faculty are a valuable asset to the school in that they bring real workplace issues and experience into the classroom."They're important not only to our students but to our full-time faculty as well," she said. And Wells added that there was another important aspect to consider when evaluating the role of adjuncts. "There's a balance to achieve: affordable and quality education," said Wells, pointing out that Sinclair has some of the lowest tuition rates in the state and has not increased its fees in the last five years. "Our mission is open-access, and that balance is important to us."At Sinclair full-time faculty salaries range from a minimum of $27,000 a year for an instructor to a maximum of $62,000 for full-professors. As with most academic positions across the state, faculty appointments require either a master's degree or a Ph.D. Sinclair employs 306 full-time tenure track instructors and professors and 90 adjuncts who comprise 30 percent of the total faculty, much lower than the national average. Of those 90, 42 are classified as "regular adjuncts" and 48 as "special adjuncts." Regular adjuncts are considered full-time temporary employees and the positions are comparable to full-time instructors. However, these appointments run for only three years, when they are once again advertised. "Regulars" work under a three-term contract, September through June, and earn $27,200 per academic year.Special adjuncts are hired on a term-by-term basis, teach a full load (15 credit hours) and receive $4,725 in compensation. Teaching three consecutive terms would earn a special adjunct $14,175. Other part-time faculty at Sinclair include "lecturers" who are divided into two categories based on education and experience. A "lecturer one" faculty member earns $280 per credit hour, with most courses being classified as three credit hours. A "lecturer two" earns $305 per credit hour.Richard Bullock said that over the past few years Wright State has been trying to buck the trend toward an over-reliance on adjuncts by hiring more full-time instructors and lecturers with master's degrees. These faculty are offered health, retirement and education benefits and have full faculty status. Bullock said that Wright State's English department hires instructors for a maximum of six years to teach 10 courses in each three-quarter academic year. Lecturers have similar course loads but work under renewable three-year contracts. Instructors and lecturers earn about the same yearly salaries, between $27,000 and $28,000. Unlike assistant, associate and full-professors, lecturers and instructors are not expected to devote significant time to academic committees nor to produce scholarly articles or books. These full-time positions -- three lecturers and five instructors -- offer those faculty fortunate enough to get them significantly higher pay than if they were teaching the same classes on a course-by-course basis as the department's 12 adjuncts do.While there are clearly significant disparities in wages between faculty at the university level, many adjuncts like Byron Crews for the time being seem to place more significance on what they do than how much they earn. "When I walk into a classroom, I'm completely invested," Crews said. "If I were in it for the money, I wouldn't be teaching. I think that's true of most of the folks I work with. And that's why they're such an amazing group of human beings: they're there because of some higher calling. It's in the cells; it's in the bones. And it's really exciting to be around people like that."The Down SideTim Bruce, 49, grew up in Sibford Ferris, England near Oxford and has a master's degree in experimental film from the Royal College of Art. An adjunct in the applied arts department at Sinclair since 1994, Bruce offered a candid perspective on how his role as a part-timer affects his life and his role on the faculty. While Bruce is committed to teaching, he's lately begun to feel the strains of working a full schedule but without the benefits and guarantees that usually come with a full-time job. This term he's teaching four classes -- video production, two sections of 3-D design, and media production -- under the status of special adjunct. Essentially, he's teaching a full-load of classes but earns less than he did as a full-time instructor in Wright State University's fine arts department when he taught experimental film in the early 1980s. Bruce supplements his teaching income by producing "Citizen Impact," a local program aired on DATV, Dayton's community access TV channel; by free-lance video production; and by delivery work for Bagel Lovers, a small Dayton area company."Obviously, I'd prefer to teach full-time, Bruce said. "As an adjunct I never really know exactly how many classes I'm going to have the following term. And that's a little unsettling. Right now I have health insurance, but I could lose it next term. It all depends on enrollment."Because adjuncts like Bruce are not full-time and usually work other jobs, they're generally not regular participants in faculty meetings that focus on curriculum, research, teaching methods and testing. And when it comes to addressing problems like attendance or the serious problem of grade inflation, adjuncts, more often than not, find themselves out of the loop. "As a part-timer," said Bruce, "there's simply no formal mechanism for me to talk about these issues."Lake WobegoneBruce's point about being out of loop, so to speak, sheds light on one of the biggest problems in American universities: grade inflation. Grading standards have become increasingly subjective as more and more adjuncts teach classes these days. And that's because they're usually working full-time jobs outside the university or cobbling together livelihoods as "freeway flyers" -- teaching a full load of courses at two or three different colleges each term. All of this adds up to adjuncts not really knowing what other adjuncts are doing. When it comes to content, assignments, testing and grading, they're pretty much on their own. And if an adjunct stays at one college long enough, he or she eventually gets a reputation for being a hard or easy grader.A problem often arises for adjuncts who try to set high academic standards and hold the line on the number of A's and B's they give: term after term they begin to see lower numbers on their evaluations. And that's because students have come to believe they're inherently exceptional and that good teachers should give students good grades.Years ago, a student who went to class, did the work, and earned satisfactory exam scores rarely complained about getting what was then called a "Gentleman's C." But in an article in U.S. News and World Report several years ago, John Leo said that because more colleges are giving higher marks, the average student has become a vanishing breed. It's a trend, said Leo, that calls to mind Garrison Keillor's imaginary Lake Wobegon where "all the children are above average."Jeff Simons is a regular contributor to The Dayton Voice.

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