The American higher educational system has created a monster — the out-of-control growth of part-time or adjunct faculty.

In its over-reliance on part-time instructors, higher education has built a house of sand. In colleges and universities across the country, budgets are developed and strategic plans made that assume contingent faculty will carry an ever-increasing share of the teaching load. While many in the establishment acknowledge this is a problem, they are doing nothing to resolve it and are fiddling while their house burns down.

In 1960, 75 percent of instructors in higher education were full-time. They were paid salaries, had job security, health benefits, retirement, paid leave and academic freedom.

By 1980 that number had fallen to 65 percent, and by 2011 it had dropped to a shocking 25 percent. The remaining 75 percent of college instructors have become what are euphemistically known as contingent faculty — non-tenured full-time teachers, graduate students, or part-time or adjunct instructors.

The situation is worse in community colleges, where 80 percent of instructors are part-time. At Hancock and Cuesta, the number is approximately 70 percent.

The typical adjunct is paid by the hour, has no health benefits, no office, no job security. The typical adjunct earns half to one-third of a full-time instructor for doing the same work. Adjuncts prepare their classes, grade their students’ work, and meet with students on their own time. 

But students do not pay less to take a class from a part-time instructor, nor must they pay more when they take a class taught by a full-timer. The credits a student earns from a part-time instructor are just as valuable as those obtained from a full-timer. Yet adjuncts are required to provide the same quality education to their students as that offered by their full-time counterparts.

Few deny that part-timers do an excellent job with the limited resources they have, frequently going beyond the call of duty as they try to deliver the best education they can to their students. So, what is the harm? What is wrong with getting the maximum bang for your buck? Is this actually detrimental to our educational system?

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The over-dependence on contingent faculty harms the educational process, creating instability where stability should prevail. The turnover rate is high, as contingent faculty either leave the profession or seek teaching employment elsewhere. Students may never see their teachers again. A rootless, itinerant workforce of highly educated but underemployed people is being created, people who feel increasingly frustrated with a system that prevents them from contributing as much as their talents will allow.

Many must cobble a living together by teaching at several colleges at once. Many others, coming to the realization they are on a dead-end street, leave teaching. The loss to education is incalculable, and it is a terrible waste of human potential. For our future’s sake, we have to do better.

No system, especially an educational system, can succeed when it rests on a foundation of exploitation and unfairness. The system is failing these people, just as it is failing the students it was built to serve. The higher education establishment is living in an ivory tower made of sand that is going to come crashing down one day, and those at the top can’t claim they weren’t being told what was coming.


Mark James Miller is president of the Part-Time Faculty Association, California Federation of Teachers Local 6185, at Hancock College. He can be reached at