June 22, 2013 in Opinion

Guest opinion: It’s time to fix higher ed pay imbalance

Keith Heller
 

It has always been assumed that students should get into the best college they can, then borrow to attend. Study after study has shown that the higher the degree attained, the more money earned over a lifetime.

The cost of a college degree has now become the focus of much debate. Student loans now exceed credit card debt at $1 trillion. And states have been slashing their higher education budgets and increasing tuition.

Since 2008, state support for our research universities (WSU and UW) has dropped by at least 40 percent, and tuition has increased by at least 60 percent. State funds for our two-year colleges have decreased by 23 percent, with tuition going up 48 percent.

There is now much talk of limiting the growth in tuition. Campaigning last year, Vice President Joe Biden blamed tuition increases on the high salaries of college professors. The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus in Olympia has proposed a budget with a 3 percent decrease in college tuition.

 Vice President Biden, and our own state politicians, may share some illusions about the cost of today’s colleges, where only one-fourth of professors teach on the tenure track with decent salaries, good benefits, sabbaticals, summers off and lifetime job security in the form of tenure. Since the mid-1970s, colleges and universities have expanded their use of non-tenure-track, or contingent, faculty members, who now number 1 million.

 Our state has long prided itself on its two-year college system, focusing on keeping costs down and expanding access for our citizens. Yet as in Robert Greenwald’s documentary “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices,” cheap tuition has come at a high price for the 8,000 part-time (or adjunct) college professors who comprise two-thirds of the two-year faculty and who teach half of all the classes statewide.

Unlike Vice President Biden’s wife, Jill, who earns $82,000 a year as a tenured community college professor in Virginia, most adjunct instructors are lucky to earn $20,000 a year teaching half time. (In Washington, full-time community college instructors average about $60,000 a year, with the chance to earn more by teaching “overloads.”) While tenure-track instructors are paid for every dollar they work, adjunct professors’ contracts pay them only for the hours they spend in class, as if college teaching could be done on a piecemeal basis.

This dual track is not a merit system; it is a caste system whereby instructors are given preference by their status on or off the tenure track. At every step, the full-timers are automatically given preference over the adjuncts, even when the adjuncts may have better credentials or more experience.

From 1996-2007, the state Legislature appropriated nearly $60 million to improve adjunct salaries, but stopped in 2008, leaving the adjuncts still earning only 60 cents on the dollar compared to their full-time counterparts, and underpaid by more than $130 million per biennium.

If it is time for the state to add more money to higher education, as the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus has proposed, then the Legislature should begin again to appropriate money to eliminate the disparity in the pay rate between part-time and full-time faculty members.

And legislators are poised to make matters worse since the disparate budgets passed by the Senate and the House contain language allowing the colleges to use “turnover savings” to fund faculty increments. Two-thirds of the colleges, including the Community Colleges of Spokane, don’t have incremental step raises for part-timers. And none of the unions has bargained any turnover money at all for adjuncts.

The Legislature needs to ensure equal increments for the adjuncts, or the disparity will continue to grow.

The National Labor Relations Act forbids placing employees into the same unions as their supervisors, and most state public employment laws follow suit. But Washington state law forces adjunct instructors, who have no job security, into the same unions as the full-time instructors who have tenure and serve as their supervisors.

To prevent these conflicts of interest, Senate Bill 5844 would mandate separate bargaining units for part-time and full-time faculty members.

 Our state should not be proud that we have built a two-year college system designed to create better job opportunities for our graduates while at the same time denying those opportunities to those graduates who enter college teaching.

Cheap tuition should not come at the expense of the lives of our adjunct instructors, many of whom have taught for decades under substandard working conditions.

Keith Heller is the co-founder (with Teresa Knudsen) of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association. He has taught philosophy inWashington community colleges for nearly 25 years. He received the 2012 John & Suanne Roueche Excellence Award from the League for Innovation in the Community College. 


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