How much will adjunct unions cost colleges? Experts debate.

Experts remain divided on the effect

The unionization of adjuncts may push college costs higher by decreasing institutions' ability to respond to demand fluctuations, according to The Hechinger Report.

In December 2014, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a ruling that strengthened the proof necessary to declare adjunct professors to be managerial employees and bolstering the groups' right to organize. Since then, adjuncts efforts to unionize have surged.

While the initiatives are aimed at bettering working conditions and pay for adjunct faculty members, it may increase prices at smaller college and universities.

About 50% of faculty members are part-time, compared with 30% in 1975, according to the American Association of University Professors, the national faculty union. Such instructors earn a median of $2,700 per course—or $22,000 a year teaching a full schedule—and receive few benefits, a survey from the Coalition of the Academic Workforce found.

However, union advocates say this shift to adjunct labor has not saved colleges money. Since 2006, instruction costs have remained fairly flat at 32% of public and 30% of private institutions' expenses.

As such, some experts say that unionization will not drive these costs up. Kent State University professor Mark Cassell says that core expenses actually fall about 2% per year after unionization and that graduation rates improve.

This is possibly because adjunct 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," says Kevin Eagan, professor of education at the University of California-Los Angeles and co-author of a study that found union pressure may aid student success.

But others disagree and argue labor organizations will make it more difficult for schools to respond to market demand for classes and programs. It is not always clear which courses will be popular in any given semester.

"Administrators would prefer to have the freedom to say, 'Oops, sorry, don't need you this year'" if a class does not fill up, says Ronald Ehrenberg, director of Cornell University's Higher Education Research Institute.

Additionally, unions may complicate an institution's ability to hire an expert to teach a class on a very specific subject, says Mark Schneider, VP at the American Institutes for Research (The Hechinger Report/U.S. News & World Report, 6/16).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.


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