Peter Nelson worked in information technology for 20 years before leaving the business world to pursue what he calls his "truest love" -- teaching.
He has now taught mathematics at Madison College for 13 years and considers it his career. Yet Nelson remains a part-time faculty member, or adjunct. He has applied three times for a full-time position, which would also give him access to benefits, but has not made the final cut. "There are just not a lot of those jobs available," he says.
Universities nationwide are shifting to an instructional workforce with a higher percentage of "contingent" teachers than tenure-track or tenured faculty. These instructors -- who are hired on a contractual basis rather than as permanent staff -- now represent over half of all higher education faculty in the U.S., according to a U.S. House of Representatives committee report released in January. In 1970, contingent instructors made up just 20% of faculty.
These positions do not have the research, community service or professional development obligations common in tenured faculty jobs. But there are significant downsides: Adjuncts draw a lower salary, receive few or no benefits and put in the same long hours as their tenured colleagues. And they are increasingly unable to transition to full-time jobs because such positions are drying up.
Provost Terry Webb says full-time faculty positions at Madison College are "very competitive," attracting 60 or 70 applications for one position.
Many adjuncts have no choice but to teach part-time or without tenure-track status, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a higher education policy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And while universities do hire local professionals to lecture on specialized topics, Goldrick-Rab says adjuncts are increasingly teaching entry-level courses that were the province of tenured faculty.
"We're producing Ph.D.s at the same time universities are cutting the tenure track," she says.
Nelson is not alone in hoping to transition to a full-time position. In a recent survey by the Part-Time Teachers' Union at Madison College, 70% of responding union members said they would prefer to work more than their part-time hours, or to hold a full-time position, says union president Michael Kent.
Currently, part-time faculty at the technical college receive no health benefits and no perks such as sick leave or bonuses for early retirement. These conditions are fairly typical. Only 23% of part-time faculty in the public sector nationwide received health benefits in 2010, according to a 2012 report by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW). The report also found about 53% of part-time faculty nationwide did not have access to retirement benefits.
Some part-time faculty at Madison College do participate in the Wisconsin Retirement System, Kent says. But a state law change in 2011 now requires instructors to work two-thirds time to be eligible for the retirement system, and part-time faculty at Madison College can only teach up to 49% of a full-time workload.
Roughly 65% of faculty employed at Madison College are part-time. And they teach about 35% of the students enrolled.
Webb says the college hires part-time faculty to keep instruction available and affordable in response to fluctuations in enrollment. But critics say it's a cost-cutting measure by institutions struggling with declining budgets. Kent says many universities see using part-time instructors as a business model.
"Essentially, part-time faculty are the cheap, outsourced labor," he says.
Kent says there is a "huge disparity" in pay among teachers at Madison College, with part-timers making around $27,000 to teach 10 courses and comparably qualified full-time faculty earning more than $90,000 for a similar workload. Human resource staff at the college were unable to verify these numbers, noting that many factors go into how much a teacher is paid. But they did confirm that part-time faculty at the college have not received a wage increase since 2009, though other employees have seen cost-of-living increases.
Despite the pay gap, Nelson says he has a full-time commitment to teaching his students, and his colleagues treat him as nothing less than faculty.
"The distinction between part-time and full-time is a distinction between hours and pay," he says, "but not a distinction in the work."
Does it matter to students if they're being taught by full-time or part-time faculty?
Goldrick-Rab says it could affect the interaction between students and teachers.
Adjuncts tend to take on multiple jobs teaching at different colleges to make ends meet. According to the CAW report, 73% of part-time faculty surveyed in 2010 taught as their primary occupation.
But when contingent faculty take on multiple teaching positions to support living expenses, they sometimes have to hightail it out of class to get to their next teaching gig. That means office hours might be scarce.
Goldrick-Rab says adjuncts also have less time to attend conferences and report what they've learned to their students. Sharing this extracurricular knowledge is "enormously valuable" for students, she says.
The House report cited a handful of studies showing that students with non-tenure-track faculty as instructors had lower graduation rates and grade point averages than other students.
"Adjuncts are no worse teachers -- in fact, they may even be better teachers just because they teach more often. But it's all that other stuff that students are wanting," Goldrick-Rab says. "Students want to interact in the classroom, but what they want just as much is to interact outside the classroom."
Nevertheless, local college administrators and instructors say students don't tend to notice whether their teacher is an adjunct or not. And it doesn't seem to hurt student recruitment either.
"Students continue to come to the university no matter what the teaching portfolio looks like," Goldrick-Rab says.
The use of contingent instructional staff is more prevalent at technical and community colleges, which emphasize bringing in experts from vocational fields. From the 1970s to the early 2000s, the use of part-time faculty at community colleges increased by almost 300%, according to Jason Lee, director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education.
But the trend also appears in four-year institutions nationwide. Lee says the use of contingent labor increased by 53% at four-year colleges in the same time period.
Instructional academic staff now represent 51% of instructors at the UW -Madison, compared to 29% in 1999, according to UW Data Digest reports from 2014 and 2000. Three-quarters of these non-tenure-track instructional staff can expect their jobs to continue year after year, and about 60% of these are full-time positions, according to data from the UW Human Resources System.
"Focusing on the short-term cost savings of part-time faculty may have long-term detrimental effects on student learning and could change the nature in which universities have to approach student learning or what they do," Lee says.
But the university is also expanding tenure-track faculty positions. Between 2009 and 2013, the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates at UW funded 76 new faculty hires in high-demand areas such as economics, according to its 2013 progress report.
Nancy Westphal-Johnson, associate dean of the College of Letters and Science, says the faculty expansion is one of the top priorities of the Madison Initiative. Putting tenured faculty at the front of the classroom is important for students' learning experience, she says, because these teachers are at the same time participating in research and curriculum development.
Above and beyond
There are some encouraging signs for adjunct professors. Kent says part-time faculty at Madison College are seeing positive changes and a serious commitment to addressing the issues at hand. For instance, the school recently changed how summer courses are assigned to faculty, giving part-time instructors more opportunity to teach them. Another big step, he says, is part-time faculty participation in problem solving at Madison College, which ensures policy changes meet the needs of all groups, including part-time faculty.
"One of the realities is that the current situation took several decades to get as bad as it is, and we aren't going to fix it in a year," Kent says.
Despite slow change, some dedicated teachers, like Nelson, continue to give it their all.
Nelson says he makes himself available to his students outside of class and will take phone calls or meet them anywhere if they need extra help.
"It's going above and beyond because I care more about the teaching than I do about the conditions of employment."