The serpentine struggle to make a living wage as an adjunct in academe is far from over, and higher education is losing world-class instructors and original contributions to research in the wake. The ivory tower is crumbling under the weight of contingency, and students are suffering the consequences of corporatized higher ed. Increasingly, the commodification of higher ed demoralizes students. With skyrocketing tuition, additional fees, and instructional cuts that impact the quality of education, more and more students question the market value of their degrees, too. Is a four-year degree worth a lifetime of debt and lottery odds of job placement?

Former student Don DuPay tells me candidly:

As each term starts and I join the long line of students waiting for services like funding information, I start to feel like I am enrolled in Walmart U. ‘Take a number! Next! Please wait behind the line for your turn.’ Yes, I feel like a commodity. Then when classes start I realize I am taught by the ‘other’ commodity, the underpaid adjuncts who do all the work. I get an education, yes, but sometimes I feel like I’m waiting in line for a burger. And fries.

DuPay paints a clear picture of what higher ed has become: “Walmart U” funded by federal and private student loans that turn many students into default debtors to the tune of $1.2 trillion in national student loan debt. And Don’s experience is not unique; rather, it’s the new norm. In fact, he knows he will die a debtor. It doesn’t have to be this way, and if more of us demand quality and affordable higher ed, they’ll supply it. So demand it.

At the height of my adjunct extremism, I taught 9 courses per quarter across three states and six schools for four consecutive years. There were some terms that I taught only seven, six, or five courses, and those low loads gave me anxiety. To do this, I stacked online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses, streamlined Open Educational Resources (OER) content, staggered due dates, applied for and received instructional design grants, spoke at conferences, published articles, and my life was tuned to the needs of my students and department. But I was spread so thin that burnout was inevitable. And I said yes to every last minute appointment, no matter the hour or impact on my life.

Not too surprisingly, some adjuncts, indeed faculty from all tiers, deny that our working conditions affect the quality of education, but they undoubtedly do, and this fact alone should agitate outrage and action. It’s time that we all admit that the odds are stacked against us: 75% of us are contingent and the state of American higher education is shameful.

In order to make it in our gig economy, I quit social life, multitasked parenting, and stayed within arms reach of my computer no matter where or what I was doing. I learned to be ambidextrous out of need. I walked the dog three times a day for a ten-minute break, with my iPhone in hand: wired to work, always. I worked an insane overload to compensate for substandard wages.

A professor’s wages should not be negotiable below an instructional minimum with benefits. And “If compensation rates were specifically tied, pro rata, to the MLA’s 2015–16 recommendation of a $48,180 minimum annual salary for an entry-level full-time instructor, these rates would be $8,020 for a standard 3-credit-hour semester course and $5,320 for a standard 3-credit-hour quarter or trimester course” (my emphasis). With this entry-level minimum in place, I would have earned $143,640 a year teaching those extreme 9-9-9 loads. Without such parity in place, however, I earned roughly $70,000 less than the recommended minimum. Of course, if I would have taught a reasonable course load, 3-3-3, at the real national average of $2,700 per 3-credit course, I would have earned $24,300 a year: poverty wages.

Faculty are charged with educating students for freedom, not oppression. We’re told repeatedly that education is America’s promise, yet the majority of our institutions exploit faculty and squeeze students. And when department chairs, deans, and the faculty senate are positioned to bargain for adjunct faculty — but don’t or won’t — they contribute to the deprofessionalization of higher ed that impacts all tiers, and students. And adjunct faculty, don’t undermine your own professional status by avoiding the obvious white elephant in the room, accept unfair working conditions and low wages even if you want to work part-time only for supplemental income; nor should you sing the praises of administrators who hike tuition and cut adjunct faculty pay and tenure lines to balance their budget. There are other ways to trim a budget that don’t require austerity measures that impact the core faculty and quality of education. In fact, the Delta Cost Project reports that faculty pay is not the culprit:

Full-time faculty salaries have grown little in recent years, making them an unlikely culprit behind rising higher education costs. Other personnel costs, including employee benefits and compensation for staff providing non-instructional services, have grown faster. Although reliance on adjunct faculty has held down instructional costs, it has not been enough to offset these other costs.

We need to revalue education and raise instructional spending. Of course, there are progressive chairs, tenured colleagues, and administrators who perform their job with agency and integrity and push for wage equity and professional standards. They openly acknowledge the market failure and are willing to argue against the grain of a flawed business model for the right reasons. “The right leaders of wrong” will understand the collective culture and core mission of the university, and fight for it.

As Justin Miller and labor activist/scholar Joe Berry explain in “When Adjuncts Go Union”:

Administrations turned to the more flexible — and cheaper — labor of contingent faculty, even as the era’s protests for racial and gender equality helped create a more diverse pool of faculty candidates. ‘Politically, it was much easier to casualize and degrade the job of college teaching now that it wasn’t just a white man’s job,’ Berry says. At the time, however, ‘nobody among us realized the depth of that strategic change that was taking place. Initially, the administrations weren’t consciously setting out to change the faculty makeup. They got addicted to the cheap, flexible labor to solve all their problems.’ But in time, he continues, ‘it came to be strategic, not tactical answers to their problem.’

And this is why we have to mobilize against low-road practices in higher ed. Miller moves on to show how

organizing efforts, of which SEIU’s is just one, are a response to the collective failure of administrations — from community colleges all the way to the Ivy League — to fully integrate their main source of instructional labor into their full-time, permanent faculty system. As tuition continues to rise, the budgetary share that goes to instructional costs, including faculty salaries, has either flat-lined or decreased.

It’s difficult to pinpoint instructional costs when “[t]he allocation of indirect costs or administrative overhead to the instructional function is an issue of judgment” (National Center for Education Statistics). But here is a visual from NCES that puts instructional spending by institution type in perspective:

Graph showing that private for-profit universities spend more than twice on administration than they spend on instruction
Percentage of total expenses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by purpose of expenses and control of institution: 2012–13

Of course, instructional spending at for-profit universities is the lowest of all, at 25% (at best). While the executives amass a fortune, the Senate HELP committee reports “1 in 5 students enrolling in a for-profit college (22 percent) defaults within 3 years of entering repayment on his or her student loans.” challenges ITT Educational Services shareholders to ask management:

  • Since the inception of the PEAKS student loan program in 2010, ITT Educational Services has paid the top three executive over $40M. Why do these executives deserve multi-million dollar salaries when their actions have directly led to charges of fraud by federal regulators and caused ITT’s stock price to drop 95% over the last five years?
  • In 2013, ITT Educational Services collected over $20K per student in tuition but only $4K of that amount was spent on instruction. Where does ITT spend the rest of the tuition money?

For-profit student activism fuels the push for regulation, accountability, and transparency. ITT-Tech Warriors, I am Ai, and Everest Avengers, for example, campaign daily on social media to raise awareness, offer resources and moral support, and help each other navigate student loan forgiveness in the wake of irresponsible college closures, such as Corinthian’s collapse. Collectively, they have earned public, legal, organizational, and political support, and they are a model for other student groups to follow as we take back our campuses for the next generation of college students.

Historically, universities were havens of thought where students, administrators, and faculty exercised democracy. It’s time to end the culture of fear, silence, complicity, and profit over mission so we can get back to educating our students in the spirit of democracy. Henry A. Giroux reminds us yet again that

the faculty have to mobilize, along with the students, like they did in the ’60s and take the university back. The university is a site of struggle. I think those people who are most affected, the faculty and students, have got to find ways to link up with social movements outside of the university to be able to educate the public, mobilize, do everything they can to say, ‘Look, sorry, the model that we have now defining the university is a model that is not healthy for democracy, and it’s not healthy for students and faculty. Faculty are more than casual labour, students are more than customers and the university is more than simply a training centre for big business.’

Students, you are paying record-high tuition for overworked, underpaid part-time professors. We need your active voice in this struggle for quality, affordable higher education. You should have reasonable access to all of your professors, not just the few who have employment security, a living wage, benefits, and an office. And it is neither reasonable nor professional to conference with your adjunct professors in the hall before or after class, on park benches, where I conducted the majority of my student conferences before Skype, or in cramped office spaces with other adjuncts trying to work and conference with students, too.

The sad fact is that many adjuncts do not have the luxury of time to meet with students as they are running between tightly stacked courses; however, you are being short changed in the wake of the adjunct professors’ poor working conditions, and this directly impacts your quality of education. Speak up about this: demand reasonable access in a professional, private setting that allows you to discuss papers, problems, and academic next steps in confidentiality. If you can’t reasonably meet with your professors for reasons you don’t control, file a complaint with the department chair: ask her why she doesn’t prioritize faculty working conditions that would improve your quality of learning.

Writing letters to Congress is another way to be heard. Several legislators press for accountability and transparency in higher ed, without which institutions, for-profit, not-for-profit private, and public, will eat faculty and students alive if they continue their bad business practices: we need regulation and accreditors that take action when necessary. We need more Harkins, Durbins, Warrens, Sanders, Merkleys, Baldwins, Scotts, and Millers, and less Walkers who wage war on higher education and labor unions.

The deprofessionalization of higher ed is well documented, but we can turn this around with collective action and innovative plans that support quality, affordable higher ed, such as Senator Bernie Sanders’ College For All Act, which would “eliminate undergraduate tuition at 4-year public colleges and universities” and calls on “colleges and universities [to] reduce their reliance on low-paid adjunct faculty.” And smaller measures, such as converting to OER, will also save students money and stress. As students head back to school this fall, they need peer, faculty, and institutional support, not long lines, financial aid nightmares, and textbook trauma. Time and time again students tell me that the required textbooks were not just expensive, but that they were hardly used in class.

It comes down to this: students cannot idly trust the system; rather, they must navigate it carefully, asking questions and holding their institutions accountable for their mission along the way. Here are three takeaways: 1) Students cannot afford the price we pay for higher education. 2) The debt-for-diploma exchange is gutting our Millennials. 3) The antidote for corporate academe is student activism. #StudentsFirst

Faculty and students must mobilize and exercise democracy as a habit. And those engaged in this discussion and embattled in the struggle are all too familiar with contingency narratives that document our plight. And these narratives laid the foundation for change: they opened the dialogue, but it’s time to fight. Moving forward, we need to strategize proactive solutions, engage in the national discussion to change higher ed, and shine a light on labor and learning conditions as we secure affordable education and an equitable instructional minimum. We need, as Giroux says, to take back the university.