Report says colleges can't afford to raise adjunct pay. Adjuncts disagree.

Adjunct supporters say there is a middle ground

Recent research argues that because of budget constraints, colleges and universities cannot improve adjuncts' working conditions without forcing "unpleasant trade-offs," Colleen Flaherty reports for Inside Higher Ed.

The paper was recently published in the Journal of Business Ethics by Jason Brennan, professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at Georgetown University, and Phillip Magness, policy historian and academic program director at George Mason University.

In the study, Brennan and Magness conclude that many of the current proposals for improving adjuncts' working conditions would actually make the situation worse. Because many institutions face budget constraints, they argue, increasing spending on adjuncts tends to mean cutting back somewhere else.

The authors estimate that the national adjunct labor force currently costs colleges about $4.3 billion per year. They calculate that offering each adjunct a $50,000 wage, benefits, full-time status, and office space would raise costs by 15% to 50% each year—or nationally, by $15 billion to $50 billion per year.

As a result, Brennan and Magness say, many colleges and universities could only afford to offer higher pay and full benefits to adjuncts if they employ fewer of them—meaning that some adjuncts would lose their jobs. The authors estimate around 450,000 adjunct positions would be cut nationwide.

Finally, Brennan and Magness argue that the effects would ripple across campus, leading to fewer classes offered, bigger class sizes, and a less diverse range of courses.

Adjuncts question calculations

Supporters of adjunct labor rights are criticizing the report. The authors considered only ambitious proposals and did not examine more moderate ones, says Joe Fruscione, co-founder of the nonprofit Precaricorps, which provides temporary financial assistance to adjuncts in need.

"There's a large financial middle ground here," Fruscione tells Inside Higher Ed.

Around a quarter of part-time faculty members' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, points out Carol Nieters, the executive director of SEIU Local 284, the union that represents adjuncts at Hamline University.

Related: Adjunct hiring and compensation practices

"We need a dramatic change," she says.

Adrianna Kezar, director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California and a professor of higher education, says the authors should have considered other areas of the university budget that could be cut to accommodate more spending on adjuncts.

Brennan contends that the goal of the research was to bring more attention to the realistic cost of raising adjunct pay, which, he says, "no one else seems to notice" (Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed, 3/17).

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