How higher education in the U.S. will be destroyed

Jane S. Gabin
Jane S. Gabin

In my nightmares, the American education system explodes in a fireball constructed of corporate greed, and this country returns to an earlier model, where only those who can afford it will pursue academics.

Educators are sick of being treated as expendable commodities. If their concerns go unheeded, or if they receive meaningless response, we’ll witness the end of quality education in America.

It’s no coincidence that public school teachers, graduate student TAs, and contingent faculty at colleges/universities are taking action simultaneously. At least full-timers in K-12 schools and colleges get benefits. Many colleges employ huge numbers of part-time teachers, who receive none.

This is not a new problem but ongoing since the 1970s. Annually, thousands of scholars are driven from academia because as adjuncts, part-time faculty, or contingent faculty, they cannot afford to work without benefits. Many schools also hire “term faculty” who work full-time but for one year only; they may re-apply for their jobs, or be fired. No, not fired – not re-hired! And some ask why are teachers angry and demoralized?

It’s all part of the corporatization that has been creeping through K-12 and higher education for the past 20 years. Corporatization demands teachers at lowest cost. Therefore, part-timers can make up to 72 percent of an institution’s faculty; at some schools, adjuncts are half of the faculty. Yet campus administrators make huge six-figure salaries.

Who wants to be a teacher today? Schools of education report declining enrollment. Seeing their own teachers struggling and disrespected, students are not inspired to follow the same career. Unwittingly, those advising high school applicants, those attending college, and those paying tuition enable academic labor abuse. Students incur tremendous debt to perpetuate a cruel, unethical system and to subsidize administrators’ salaries of $250,000-plus.

How can you tell if a school you consider is exploiting teachers? The best source is the Common Data Set (CDS), a statistical compilation made by each college or university’s institutional research office. You can learn how many part-time faculty a school employs. Twenty or even 30 percent is normal. Forty percent is unhealthy, but at 50 percent or higher, imagine lights, buzzers, and sirens. A college hiring half its faculty on a contingent basis is in financial trouble or is a questionable employer.

This information is not secret. However, you need to look for it. Do you think College X wants to advertise that despite charging $63,000 yearly tuition, it hires 50 percent of its teachers without providing health care?

Colleges love saving money. But do they trim administrative salaries? No. They hire part-time teachers without benefits. Then they can buy more real estate, install multicolored lights in their fountains, and out-do each other appealing to students with fancier dorms and gourmet dining.

Recently I researched 200 popular colleges and universities, including public and private institutions across the US. Sixty-seven had overwhelming numbers of part-time teachers; 43 of the 67 were not state schools on limited budgets, but private institutions. I contacted all provosts asking them to clarify the statistics. Only 15 responded. Most simply ignored me, including the California state university in the news recently when one of their adjunct professors was found to be living in a car.

Counselors, students, and parents must ask colleges: Who is doing the teaching at your school? Do they receive benefits? Involving counselors is crucial, as they recommend colleges to their students. If students choose not to apply or enroll, they must tell the college why. Colleges must understand that relying on “cheap” teaching may cost them dearly.

Please remember: Do the research. All teacher protests are connected. This country says education is important, but really accords it low priority. There is money for technology in some schools, there is money for administrators – but is there money for more teachers and smaller classes? When there are spending cuts, the first victim is usually learning.

The current protests may result in real change. The ranks of red-clad marchers offer hope. Schools are already feeling financial pressure – but what do they do? They cut programs, not administrative salaries. If protests don’t result in educational improvement, expect continuing decline. More teachers will leave education, fewer students will become teachers, all classes will get larger. Adjuncts will quit, courses will have no teachers; education will become accessible only to the few. Those of us who nurtured by caring teachers, and who care about students, are filled with dread.

Jane S. Gabin is a career educator, having worked as a college counselor in New York, at the UNC-Chapel Hill admissions office and as a high school English teacher.