Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why Does College Cost so Much if it's taught by Adjuncts?

A great column in the Huffington Post recently by Gina Nahai, entitled The Shame of America's Colleges. It begins:

''Imagine working for the same institution for thirty years, always earning below minimum wage, never getting any benefits whatsoever, then being let go without notice, without an explanation, without a severance package or a retirement fund or even a $.50 pen from Staples as a souvenir.''

''You think Wal-Mart employees are exploited?''

[Her audience here is progressives, so all of this is good. Someone's being exploited, Lassie? Let's get help!]

''What if I told you that all over this country, major institutions created and sustained with a mission to pursue the betterment of mankind, colleges and universities that sit on billion dollar endowments are using the current economic crisis to further enrich themselves at the expense of the meager livelihood of long-time faculty? That at the same time as they claim to be the guardians of knowledge and the champions of the arts, they treat their faculty to the legal and financial equivalent of what migrant day laborers earn by standing outside Home Depot?''

[This is okay, in that it reminds us of the educational mission of universities. I'm not sure that bringing up day laborers is a good tactic. A large number of Americans work labor jobs, or are unemployed, so telling them that the eggheads deserve better might not be the best approach here.]

''Freeway Flyers: aka "adjunct professors", aka "teaching professionals." They're the dirty little secret of universities and colleges all around the United States. They're the PhDs with decades of teaching experience, award-winning artists, published authors whose names and reputations draw students to the universities, whose work justifies the $50,000/year tuition, raises the million-dollar donations, earns the sought after rankings in USA Today's annual poll.''

[Again, most people don't care about published authors or USA Today polls. She needs to emphasize the tuition. More about that later.]

''In exchange for all that, they are hired only on a part-time basis, made to sign a pledge that they will not work more than twenty hours a week and will not--not now, not ever--have a claim to health or retirement or any other kind of benefits, not even a parking pass. That they are "at will" employees who can be let go at any time, for any reason. Their salaries are so meager, they have to teach two, three, sometimes five classes a semester, at five different universities, just to pay their rent. That's why they're called Freeway Flyers. One writer I knew taught for twenty years at a Southern California college with more money than the GNP of a small country. He was paid so little, he had to supplement his income by working the graveyard shift at airport gift shops. He was the author of one of the biggest literary novels of the 20th century; when he died, his family couldn't afford to bury him. Another guy--a teacher of mine from the days when I was a student of writing--drove four hours each way to teach the same class for twenty-seven years. He made something near $3,000 a semester. He was recently let go because the school could take advantage of the rising unemployment rates to hire a younger person for less than $3,000.''

''I could go on, but it's too depressing.''

The article does go on. What needs to be pointed out here is the fact that universities have turned their courses over to adjuncts, or in our case grad students, in order to save money; and yet parents are still paying through the nose for their kids to go to school. These university administrators care so little about anything but making money that they screw over both their employees and their 'customers' to keep their profit margins one iota higher.

So, you might well ask where the money from these record tuitions goes. I have three answers:

1. The salary of presidents, deans, administrators and so forth. The president of a typical American university has a salary higher than that of the President of the United States.

2. Many universities, including mine, have a top-heavy administrative structure. What this means is that bureaucratic jobs that could be handled by one or two secretaries are actually handled by ten or twelve secretaries in two or more offices. At our university, we have an official 'department' with its own office that does nothing but sell tee-shirts in the Student Union- even though the same tee-shirts are also sold in the book store about 200 feet away. And the students pay to maintain that tee-shirt store, in spite of the fact that none of them seem to shop there.

3. Perks for the students- little extras that are intended to add some vague 'quality' to the 'educational experience'. Our university also has a state of the art gym that stays open 24 hours a day. We have an office that gives free copies of a few different newspapers to any student who wants them each morning. We have luxury condos for them to live in, and free buses that will take them one block down the street so they can avoid the sidewalks. And, of course, none of this is actually free because parents pay for these things without having any choice not to.

The point of all of this is to impress prospective students. The 'educational experience' has come to resemble a four-year pleasure cruise in order to keep universities that offer a third-tier education competitive with each other. However, I'm willing to bet that you could open a university that made the argument- ''We closed the tee shirt shop and now the gym closes at 9 pm; we did away with the luxury condos and the sidewalk bus; so our university isn't as luxurious. However, by doing this, we were able to reduce the price of going here by a few thousand bucks a semester.'' And I'm guessing that most parents who are sending their kids to college would be okay with that. Seriously, someone is going to get rich with a ''no frills'' university.

But, it says quite a lot about universities that they consider the extra tee-shirt shop to be a necessity and the educators to be an indulgence.


Holly said...

Oh, man. This really IS too depressing to go on. I keep trying to be coherent about this, and it descends into raving and I delete it and start again, and it happens all over. I'll be over in the corner despairing, if you need me...

rufus said...

I think the secret to living in these times, no matter the job, is going to be doing a whole lot of different things and keeping a number of irons in different fires. Or, be totally corrupt- they seem to be the only ones with any job security.