Uber car with official sticker
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By now, most Americans are well acquainted with the “gig” economy. Companies reclassify their employees as contractors, thereby shedding costs and responsibilities for workplace rights and benefits. Uber is the prime example. The company claims to be a technology platform rather than an employer, transforming and upending the traditional relationship that a taxi company has with its staff and making drivers cheap, disposable widgets. 

The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission
by Herb Childress
University of Chicago Press, 208 pp.

Our system of higher education has also been, in a sense, gigafied, and it has yielded similar results. College teaching, once a middle-class profession, increasingly leaves its practitioners in poverty. Hidden behind glossy brochures with photos of Frisbee games on the college lawn and students at work in the library are the underpaid and overworked adjunct faculty who teach most of America’s undergraduates.

In his new book, The Adjunct Underclass, Herb Childress describes why colleges and universities turned to a contingent workforce, and the consequences this shift has had. A former adjunct himself, Childress explains how this system has left adjuncts impoverished and heartbroken. He relates, for example, the experience of Ellen Tara James-Penney, an adjunct at San Jose State University, to illustrate the difficult circumstances of the poorly paid PhD. James-Penney “often drives to a parking lot to grade papers. When it’s dark, she’ll use a headlamp from Home Depot so she can continue her work. At night, she’ll repark in a residential neighborhood and sleep in her 2004 Volvo. She keeps the car neat to avoid suspicion.”

Though the central story of the book is the proletarization of college teaching, Childress’s subtitle, How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission, reveals the breadth of his critique. Poorly paid adjuncts may garner the most sympathy, but they are not the only victims. Using data that correlates dropout and transfer rates with a school’s reliance on temporary faculty, Childress argues that there’s a relationship between transience for teachers and poor performance by students.

In the mid-1970s, nearly half of college faculty were full-time and permanent. Today that figure has dropped to about a quarter. Childress points to a mix of factors to explain the decline, but he emphasizes the increase in college-age individuals who pursue higher education—from 13 percent in 1940, to 43 percent in 1970, to nearly 70 percent now. These numbers reflect not just a change in scale but also a change in kind. Today’s students are more racially diverse and more likely to come from low-income families whose members don’t have college degrees. The changing student body has required a larger teaching staff with a greater focus on basic skills, as well as additional administrators who can oversee programs for single parents, part-time working students, and other “non-traditional” groups. Rather than investing in more tenure track positions, colleges and universities have added a disposable workforce to serve a population that swells and shrinks depending on the economy and the size of generational cohorts.

There’s no villain in this story, but the consequences have been negative across the board. Adjuncts who applied to graduate school with lofty ambitions of cutting-edge scholarship and visions of a warm, mentoring relationship with students end up with short-term contracts, long hours, low pay, limited opportunities for research, and only fleeting connections with the people who sit in their classes. According to the American Community Survey, nearly one-third of these instructors fall near or below the federal poverty line. Similarly, the Berkeley Labor Center found that 25 percent of adjunct households rely on one or more public assistance program, including food stamps, Medicaid, or the Earned Income Tax Credit. 

While full-time tenure track faculty don’t have the same existential anxieties, their academic lives have also become less rich. They are required to take on additional administrative work that used to be shared among more professors—from running departments to providing career advice to students—and they have fewer peers to critique their work and discuss ideas with. 

Even administrators suffer from some of these changes. With the churn in contracts, they are forced every semester to find adjuncts to teach more and more courses in a self-perpetuating cycle. Community college dean Matt Reed commented on Inside Higher Ed’s blog that the easier it is to find an adjunct in a given discipline, the more likely it is that the position will remain temporary. “In a particularly cruel catch-22,” he wrote, “the relative ease of finding adjuncts for a given discipline actually mitigates against its getting [a tenure track position].”

But the big question is whether education itself has suffered. Childress says it has. He cites one study from a typical public university that found a correlation between exposure to part-time faculty and freshmen’s decision to not return for a second semester. But other research shows that exposure to adjuncts with nonacademic career expertise has benefits and can excite and motivate students. Ultimately, it’s hard to find a definitive answer because different studies use different variables—“part-time,” “full-time,” “adjunct,” “graduate student”—and often focus on different types of higher education institutions. 

Childress is on stronger ground when he relates qualitative rather than quantitative losses. He quotes one student who tells her adjunct teacher, “I really loved your course. What else do you teach?” The professor, however, only had a contract to teach that one class, and the student never encountered him again. While making a special connection with a gifted and inspiring professor isn’t the only element of a good college experience, for those of us lucky enough to have such a professor it is transformative. College is not just about classes, Childress points out, but about relationships with inspiring teachers whose personal intellectual endeavors engage and inform students as much as the subject matter they teach. When these teachers are forced to shuttle bleary-eyed from campus to campus, it’s much harder for students to forge such bonds. 

In this seemingly bleak environment, one group does seem to have benefited: senior administrators. As the number of faculty members has gone down, administrator compensation has climbed. Their salaries, unlike those of professors, went up by 50 percent between 1998 and 2003. Estimates indicate that between 1978 and 2013, the average salaries for CEOs at public and private institutions went up by 75 percent and 170 percent, respectively.

Childress admits that some of the changes in higher education over the last several decades have been positive. Student bodies have diversified beyond the mostly male, white, upper-middle-class group that typified college students of the mid-twentieth century. But while Childress refreshingly rejects the idea that the past was a golden era, he rejects the status quo, too. He calls on administrators to calculate the cost of new technology upgrades or sports facilities against the cost of more full-time teachers and to think hard about what will matter more to their educational mission. Childress also asks schools to tell adjuncts the truth about the contingency of their positions. 

He refrains, however, from offering concrete ideas for systemic change. Instead, he enumerates principles designed to help colleges fulfill their mission. “A worthy college works to foster and to respect its web of relationships,” he writes. “It is a culture shaped and steered by its faculty. It places everyone into a place of continual learning. It asks for regular public demonstration of that learning.” Childress argues that these principles make “contingency unthinkable.”

Readers would likely appreciate more specific guidance on how to transform higher education for the better. Thankfully, other experts and activists have been working on concrete proposals that can help, including unionizing adjuncts and setting a minimum wage per course. Unionized adjuncts have seen real increases in wages and job satisfaction, while minimum wages per course could reduce the incentive to look for cheap labor. Policy-
makers should also consider consumer-facing reforms, including requiring that colleges disclose the number of short-term and contingent faculty they employ and the likelihood that a student will be in courses with such instructors. 

But proposing reforms isn’t Childress’s aim. His book, though factual and well reasoned, is at its essence a cri de coeur. Childress aspired to sit in the ivory tower and was left with only short-term and poorly paid teaching contracts. Disappointment and anger infuse his rhetoric, giving the book a more emotional and personal tenor than one normally encounters in works about public policy. But that’s understandable in a profession where some people have lifetime job guarantees and others sleep in their cars.

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Caroline Fredrickson is a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Practice at Georgetown Law and a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. She served as the president of the American Constitution Society from 2009 to 2019. In 2021, she was appointed a member of the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States.