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Obama wants to help community college students. What about the people who teach them?

President Obama wants to increase the number of students in America's community colleges by making it virtually free to attend.

His proposal has prompted questions, including who will teach all these new students.

Stung by budget cuts, community colleges in Georgia and around the nation increasingly rely on part-time faculty.

In this essay, Rick Diguette discusses the life of adjunct professors. A writer, Diguette teaches English at a local college.

By Rick Diguette

The plight of adjunct faculty at our nation’s community colleges is a frequent topic of impassioned debate at venues like the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Now that President Obama has floated the idea of making community college free to all comers, that debate needs to move beyond the academy.

If you don’t know what an adjunct is, a brief sketch is in order.  Adjuncts are typically part-time instructors who sign short-term contracts, often only days before the start of semester, to teach anywhere from one to three courses.  To do this at a community college, they must have at least a master’s degree, although many have a Ph.D.

Where I work a few adjuncts are retired educators who relish the opportunity to do what they love for a few more years.  They’re not in it for the money.  Others have full-time jobs in another industry and teach part-time for various reasons.

For instance, I was an adjunct for almost 10 years while my children were young.  My wife and I had decided that one of us needed to be home all the time, so she put her career on hold.  I worked two jobs and also hired myself out as a handyman.  Although the money wasn’t great, it beat slinging hamburgers on nights and weekends.

But for a majority of adjunct faculty, teaching part-time is their only option.  It’s not as much a choice as it is an unfortunate fact of academic life.

According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “about 70 percent of the instructional faculty at all colleges is off the tenure track, whether as part-timers or full-timers, a proportion that has crept higher over the past decade.”

Why the proportion of adjuncts has continued to rise is a bone of contention that gets gnawed pretty hard at both ends.  Suffice it to say that otherwise reasonable people strongly disagree about the status quo.

Many argue that colleges and universities have no fiscally viable alternative when it comes to instruction.  There’s only so much money to go around; not everyone who wants to teach will have an opportunity to do so full-time, earning a salary plus benefits.

According to their opponents at the other end of the bone, that is both an excuse and a travesty.  The way they see it, the “adjunctification” of the academy is economically exploitative, pure and simple.

Adjuncts predominate in the teaching ranks because the powers that be, meaning legislators who hold the purse strings and college administrators who do their bidding, have misplaced their moral compass.

So how much are adjuncts paid?  Although that depends on where they teach, at a community college here in Georgia they will earn about $2,300 per course, a little more if they teach math or science.

They receive nothing in the way of benefits, seldom have a place to grade papers or meet with students outside the classroom, and are always one short semester away from joining or rejoining the ranks of the unemployed.

I am not opposed to President Obama’s idea, but the details of how this might work remain to be fleshed out.  Making the first two years of community college free would mean that enrollments would grow, if not leap into the stratosphere.

If there isn’t enough money for instruction now, won’t there be even less once the first two years of community college are free?

And if we are going to give community college students a big leg up financially speaking, shouldn’t we be willing to do something similar for all those adjuncts who will more than likely be teaching them?



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.