Higher Education

As adjuncts unionize for better wages and benefits, some college costs could rise

Universities also could have less flexibility to respond to changing course demands

Tufts University’s part-time instructors in the School of Arts and Sciences were fed up. They hadn’t had a raise in five years — the only faculty at Tufts without a cost-of-living increase since the financial crisis — despite teaching more than a third of all undergraduate classes.

The administration offered a raise after four years, then another pay bump after eight.

Instead, the part-timers took a vote, and formed a union.

The move is part of a fast-growing trend in higher education aimed at improving the pay and working conditions of the swelling number of so-called adjunct faculty.

It’s good for the adjuncts, but potentially bad for universities and expensive for students at smaller institutions, according to some observers. They say that while instruction could improve, the unionizing efforts could push up prices and limit schools’ ability to respond to fluctuations in demand for certain courses.

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Born of frustration and prodded by labor unions, including the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union, organizing campaigns have signed up nearly 100,000 part-time academic faculty in the last two years, not just at Tufts, but also at Georgetown, American, Northeastern, Seattle and other universities.

Even as tuition has increased 90 percent at four-year nonprofit private institutions since 2000, the proportion of faculty who are full-time and tenured or tenure-track has dropped from nearly 80 percent in 1969 to about 30 percent today, according to the University of Southern California’s Delphi Project, which tracks this.

Half of faculty are part-time, reports the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, the national faculty union—up from about 30 percent in 1975.

These part-time adjuncts earn a median of $2,700 per course and most receive no medical or retirement benefits, according to a survey by the advocacy group the Coalition on the Academic Workforce. That’s less than $22,000 a year if they teach a full schedule of four courses a semester.

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“I say I work full-time, but get paid part-time,” said Tufts part-time lecturer Elizabeth Lemons. This, she said, despite the fact that “We are an element that is vital to university life.”

The move to part-time adjuncts hasn’t lowered the cost of higher education for students and their families; costs have continued to increase faster than inflation. And the unionizing trend does not seem to have had a role in pushing those prices higher, either — at least, not so far: the percentage of expenses at public and private universities or colleges that goes to instruction (including faculty salaries) has held steady at 32 and 30 percent respectively since 2006 according to the American Institutes for Research.

“Faculty, unionized or not, will not likely drive the cost of education higher,” said John Barnshaw, senior higher education researcher at the AAUP, who noted that the main reason tuition has increased is because of state budget cuts to public universities.

“As subsidies erode, you’re seeing the total cost to deliver the product,” Barnshaw said.

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Ronald Ehrenberg, director of Cornell University’s Higher Education Research Institute, doesn’t think it’s that clear-cut. Wealthier institutions “make a lot of money and can afford to pay adjuncts and take away from something else,” he said. But, “At the least well-financed universities, there is not a lot of money lying around that they can do things with.” The unionization of adjuncts could force up tuition at those institutions, Ehrenberg said.

Universities have resisted unionizing efforts by part-timers. Northeastern, for example, hired the New York law firm Jackson Lewis, which the American Federation of Labor has called a “union-buster.” The adjuncts voted for a union anyway.

Mark Cassell, a Kent State University professor of political science who has studied the trend, said it could actually improve teaching.

Cassell said graduation rates improved and costs were better controlled after faculty at public universities were unionized. “We didn’t find any support for the view that unions somehow make the school less efficient.” Instead, he said, the opposite happened. The longer a union was in place, he found, the better core expenses were managed, dropping 2 percent per year following unionization.

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Another study suggests that union pressure to improve adjuncts’ work lives could also help students. The report found that first-year students with average exposure to contingent faculty were up to 30 percent more likely to drop out than students taught only by full-time professors.

Among the things that likely cause this, said the report’s coauthor, Kevin Eagan, were adjuncts’ lack of both office space and compensation for after-class advising.

Part-time faculty “have less time to engage with students outside of class, which could contribute to lower levels of achievement and retention among the students in their courses,” Eagan, a professor of education at UCLA, said.

Yet, universities want to have the “freedom to arrange the workforce in the ways that they want,” said Ehrenberg. This is particularly important in higher education, he said, since administrators don’t necessarily know which classes will be in the highest demand from one semester to another.

Using non-union adjuncts gives universities the flexibility to adjust if a course does not fill up, Ehrenberg said. “Administrations would prefer to have the freedom to say, ‘Oops sorry, don’t need you this year.’”

The trend could also hurt a university’s ability to hire adjuncts to teach particularly unique subjects, said Mark Schneider, vice president at the American Institutes for Research and former head of political science at Stony Brook University.

“There’s a whole big push getting people with field expertise to teach courses,” said Schneider — for example, a judge or working lawyer heading up a law course. The unionization of contingent faculty would complicate this.

“We had unionized [faculty], tenure and no mandatory retirement at Stony Brook,” said Schneider. “Now add unionization to the contingent work force. How are [department heads] going to adapt to a particular demand?”

It took 10 months for the Tufts adjuncts, once they unionized, to negotiate a new deal with the school. They won higher salaries and, for four- and eight-year teaching veterans, respectively, two- and three-year contracts.

They were so successful that the full-time non-tenured faculty has now voted to unionize as well.

“To say ‘part-time faculty’ simply says the person is part-time,” said Andy Klatt, a part-time Spanish instructor. “But the work is equally valuable.”

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