The happy way to spin this is that UMBC is the 13th best college to work for, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Which is great! But the underlying message here is that most colleges are kinda terrible places to work for, at least for temporary adjunct appointees. The low pay, lack of benefits, and general overwork of adjuncts has gotten so bad that the IRS has stepped in — and you know things are dire when the IRS suddenly seems heroic — to warn colleges that they need to figure out a better system. Because the current one doesn’t just hurt adjuncts; it hurts faculty and students, too.
A quick run-down, for those who haven’t been enmeshed in the academic world for a while: adjuncts are temporary part-time employees, often recent PhDs, who are hired on by colleges to fill in the gaps in their faculty rosters. They’ll often be the ones teaching classes no one else wants to tackle — that 400-person section of Intro to Business, or the basic composition classes that students try to get out of the way first semester. When adjuncting works well, it offers newly-minted PhDs a chance to get their foot in the door at a university, while sparing full professors from having to take on boring classes.
But what the IRS — and many educational experts — are objecting to is how the adjunct system has gotten way out of whack in recent years. Faced with a shrinking economy (read: stagnant or shrinking endowments), many schools decided they couldn’t afford to hire on tenure-track faculty, with their wild demands for things like, you know, “salaries” and “benefits.” Instead, schools leaned harder and harder on adjuncts, the temp workers of the academic world. Adjuncts almost always get paid per class, not per hour — this is what the IRS objects to — and so as their classes got increasingly stuffed, their work hours skyrocketed while their pay remained the same. And that pay is often shockingly low: according to the Chronicle, the average three-credit class pays just under $3,000, while more than a dozen schools pay less than $1,000 per class. (UMBC’s adjuncts make an average of $4,000+, one reason they made the Chronicle’s list.) At the average rate, an adjunct teaching two classes per semester earns less than $12,000 a year, just a smidge over poverty level.
Parents who write tuition checks might be incensed that their children are being taught by over-extended temp professors who can barely pay rent (much less afford health insurance). Students want teachers who have the time to meet with them. And adjuncts just want a living wage. Thanks to the IRS, anyone working more than 30 hours per week will count as a full-time faculty member (eligible for health insurance!) starting in January 2014. Already, some schools are trying to figure out ways around that; nonetheless, this seems like a step in the right direction.