It's no secret that the cost of higher education has increased sharply during the last 30 years, and that many college graduates leave school carrying a burdensome debt. But something else has happened that's less talked about.
The days when colleges and universities were staffed primarily with tenure-track and tenured faculty are long gone. Contingents... part-timers... contract-based... adjuncts... call them what you like, but in colleges and universities across the country, a major portion of the teaching force is now made up of people who work on a semester-to-semester, contractual basis.
They might work part-time or full-time, but either way, most of them have no benefits such as health insurance or paid time off. They have no voice when it comes to policy-making, and they have no job security.
At some colleges, this group of contingency workers has started pushing back. After a year of planning, adjunct faculty at Nazareth College recently filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to join Service Employees International Union, SEIU Local 200United.
It's a significant event for Nazareth. The college relies heavily on an adjunct faculty of more than 300 teachers, who work in almost every subject area, according to union organizers. The college declined to confirm that number, but a spokesperson said that its adjunct faculty does not exceed more than a third of the total faculty per semester.
One of Nazareth's adjuncts is Josh Massicot, who's worked in the college's Music and Creative Arts Department for more than 10 years. He says he's passionate about teaching, but he's challenged by the financial pressures that come with low-paying work. At a rally last week in support of forming a union, he said Nazareth has failed in how it compensates and recognizes the contributions of its part-time faculty.
"I receive no compensation for time outside of the classroom, no paid office hours, and no access to professional development funds," he said. "The extra help that I provide students after class and as they prepare for internships and auditions is entirely my own uncompensated time."
The college views him as expendable, he said, a means to balance the books. He and his colleagues struggle with the challenge of giving the students what they need and deserve, he said.
Nazareth is certainly not alone in its reliance on adjunct faculty. RIT has a total of 1,113 teachers, 422 of whom are adjunct. Teaching faculty in both institutions reflect a staffing approach that's been underway nationally since the 1960's. Tenured and tenure-track faculty in the US made up nearly 80 percent of the total faculty in higher education in 1969, according to an article in Trustee Magazine for the Association of Governing Boards. By 2009, their ranks had fallen to about 34 percent.
Nazareth isn't the only institution to see its adjunct faculty organize, either. Between the 2013-14 school year and 2015-16, adjuncts formed unions at about 35 US private universities and colleges, according to the trade publication University Business.
Faculty Forward, a project of SEIU, has already helped 54,000 faculty members and graduate students on 60 campuses form unions. In addition to Nazareth, SEIU says it's helped form unions at Ithaca College, Herkimer County Community College, Schenectady Community College, Wells College, and Fordham University form unions.
The issues driving the unionization movement in most instances is the same. Low pay is the biggest issue. Tenured professors often earn six-figure salaries, virtually permanent employment, and an enviable benefits package, which frequently includes reduced tuition for their children.
Though Nazareth declined to say what its adjuncts are paid, Massicot said that the college pays him $878 per credit, or $2,634, for required courses. Monroe Community College pays its adjuncts between $1,037 and $1,267 per credit, or $3,111 to $3,801 per course. Nationally, adjuncts are generally paid somewhere between $2,700 and $3,500 per course per semester, according to a 2015 article in American Prospect.
Many have to travel long distances to teach at multiple institutions to eke out a living or rely on other forms of part-time work.
"I did farm labor so I could get fresh vegetables, says Megan Graham, who teaches academic writing at Ithaca College. It took several years for her and her colleagues to form a union there because it was met with some resistance, but it was worth pursuing, she says.
"We signed our contract a little over a year ago," she says. The increase in pay and the job security she has now allowed her to buy a home.
Ashar Foley, who teaches communication and media studies at Fordham, earned a PhD and has about $70,000 in student debt, she says. Her colleagues recently formed their union and are working on a contract with the university's administration.
It's ironic that working in higher education as an educator frequently doesn't pay for that degree, Foley says.
"This economy is going toward a contract-based workforce, what's referred to as the gig economy," she says. "We're definitely part of it. You're going from gig to gig."
Many factors have led to the reliance on an adjunct workforce in higher education. States started cutting funding for higher education in the 1970's, says a 2015 article in American Prospect magazine. The cuts occurred just as the US manufacturing base began to erode and the demand for a college-educated workforce started to increase.
Administrators most often cite a need for flexibility as the main reason for using adjuncts. Nazareth hires a wide range of part-time faculty members, and they are a valued part of the community, says Andrea Talentino, vice president of Nazareth's academic affairs.
"Our part-time faculty allows us to be fluid in our staffing in response to student needs and demand for courses," she said in a written statement. "This fluidity allows us to respond on a semester-by-semester basis."
She also stressed that 100 percent of Nazareth's undergrads receive financial aid based on academic merit and financial need.
But students in many institutions are paying a hefty tuition price tag, while the teachers in front of them aren't paid enough to make ends meet, says Ashar Foley of Fordham.
Once students become informed about how little adjuncts are paid, they're generally supportive of unionizing efforts, some adjuncts say.
Sara Barton, a Nazareth senior majoring in social work, says she supports the college's adjuncts because she's seen how their struggles have adversely affected her education.
"I've worked with some really good adjunct professors who I've lost in between semesters because they couldn't stay," she says. "And sometimes they can't communicate back to you in a timely manner or their office hours are not when students are available."
She says she understands that colleges have expenses that continue to go up, but her tuition has also increased over time, she says. According to the Nazareth website, the cost of its 2017 tuition, room, and board for undergraduates was about $46,000.
Barton says she also considers adjuncts' low pay a social justice issue, one of Nazareth's core values.
"I find it hard to believe that some of that money can't be redirected," she says. "And I do believe that adjuncts need a voice at the table."