Colleges love to brag.
Well-funded PR departments churn out sleek brochures and websites boasting about a university's high-end sports facilities, its accomplished alumni, and the latest award bestowed on a star faculty member. With a few clicks on any college website you can easily find the diversity breakdown, graduation rates, and the number of times the local sports team won the championship.
But there are some figures that will not be publicized, and they are crucial to students who want to get a good education. The first is the average debt graduates are burdened with, paired with the rate of default. These numbers should be available on a new government website (though it is currently down due to the shutdown), and students should examine them closely. The second is the ratio between tenure-track and non-tenure-track or adjunct faculty employed by the college. Universities are rarely required to publish these ratios, and they are not always easy to find. Yet these ratios will tell you a lot more about the quality of education and the culture of the college than any hyped-up PR.
Many American colleges were conceived as oases of learning where undergraduates could expand their horizons and come of age without being troubled by everyday cares. Nestled in scenic landscapes far from the centers of commerce, rural college campuses still recall that original promise. But it is no secret that education is now big business, and most colleges have kept only the appearance, but not the substance of, that ideal.
Only a small minority in these institutions have the leisure to engage in deep learning, either as students or scholars. If you look closely, you'll notice that almost everyone on campus is in a rush. Students are rushing from class to a near-full-time job. Adjuncts instructors — or "freeway flyers" — scramble for their car keys as they head to teach their next class on a campus some 30 miles away.
Being a student or a college instructor today is a lot like working at Walmart. No matter how many hours you put in, or how long you've been there, it's virtually impossible to make ends meet. Though more students work longer shifts while attending college, most still graduate with enormous debt.
Arguably, the situation is even worse for adjunct instructors. Having accumulated substantial debt from many years of graduate education, they are often paid near-minimum wage by the college. Many have no health benefits and no job security — they can be fired at any time and for any reason. Adjuncts may look no different than tenure-track professors, but many of them are so poor they have to sign up for food stamps or sell their plasma to get by.
About 75% of today's college instructors are adjuncts or non-tenure track faculty. Most adjuncts are excellent instructors. They have advanced degrees, and their teaching expertise often surpasses that of their tenured colleagues. Still, students who are taught primarily by adjuncts are shortchanged in several ways.
First, most adjuncts have little time for research, creative work, or anything apart from teaching. When I was a student, I was most inspired by professors who shared their excitement about their latest research project, or a new book they discovered through copious reading. Adjuncts are less likely to inspire you in this way.
Second, adjunct instructors have little or no academic freedom. Those who are able to carve out the time for research or independent curriculum development may not be able to teach it at their college. As an adjunct, I have never been able to teach the literature I've studied for more than 10 years because the only courses available to "part-time" faculty were in freshman composition. Some instructors fare worse: they have to teach from a set curriculum and are penalized for introducing new material.
Finally, an adjunct instructor won't be your mentor. That's because an adjunct instructor may not be at your college as long as you are; she might not be allowed to supervise your graduate thesis or she simply may not have time for it while shuttling between three different campuses.
Institutions where most of the faculty are off the tenure-track are run by administrators and a small group of star faculty. These people are paid six-figure salaries to develop athletics programs, write grant proposals, and publish research that makes the university look good. The culture of inequality these institutions promote may be masked by diversity programs and blockbuster courses, but if you come from an unconventional background, if your financial aid falls through, or encounter other difficulties, you are likely to experience it first-hand.
Most of today's students are middle-class and working-class. They work hard to attend college and many of them will carry a debt for decades after graduation. They deserve a cutting-edge, high quality education and the care and attention of full-time faculty. Instead many colleges are run like factories, where students pass from class to class without acquiring the most basic skills.
Adjunct instructors also deserve better. Many share their students' modest economic backgrounds, and have foregone opportunities for quicker economic mobility to become educators and researchers. On some campuses, adjuncts are treated like servants whose sole task is to teach a few classes on the cheap. They have no offices, no status, and no place within the academic community. Many are unable to retire, and can die penniless when the university no longer needs them.
On October 28-November 2, this year's Campus Equity Week, faculty and students should work together to raise awareness of inequality and to protest the selling out of higher education. Organized by The Coalition for Contingent Academic Labor, Campus Equity Week has been marked bi-annually in universities across the U.S. and Canada since the early 2000s. Their actions have typically focused on the poor working conditions of adjunct and part-time instructors. This year faculty and students can do more to emphasize their common concerns.
As the student debt default rate hits a record high, and California implements a two-tier tuition system, it is becoming clear that the exploitation of adjuncts is part of a larger failure. It is the failure of higher education to serve all of its students, and to live up to the ideals of equality and upward economic mobility upon which the public college systems are founded.
Together, we must reclaim our campuses.