Colorado Community Colleges Rely on Poverty-Level Instructor Workforce

College Adjunct Instructor System Leaves Many Financially Strapped from Rocky Mountain PBS on Vimeo.

Pears were all-you-can-take at the food bank, so Front Range Community College adjunct professor Caprice Lawless loaded up during a visit one Thursday.

Lawless set the plastic bag in her cart, where it joined manila folders of student homework she still had to grade, some canned tuna and peanut butter.

She has two masters degrees and almost 16 years of community college teaching experience. Yet she said she has to choose between incurring debt or visiting a food bank each month to survive on her approximately $20,000 a year adjunct instructor salary.

“It’s a spiritual challenge,” Lawless said.

In the State of the Union address earlier this year, President Barack Obama identified two years of free community college education as a means to help the middle class. It’s not only the students who could use a leg up.

Adjunct professors scraping by on assistance from family, charities, and safety net programs like Medicaid and food stamps continue to push for fair compensation and work conditions. Higher education institutions across Colorado employ part-time faculty, but adjuncts in community colleges say their situation is particularly dire.

Adjuncts currently represent 4,060 employees, or 78 percent of instructors at the 13 colleges in the Colorado Community College System, and are paid per class, largely without benefits, sick leave or job security.

Across the country, adjuncts staged a “National Adjunct Walkout Day” on February 25 to protest wages and working conditions. Organizers held events on Colorado campuses, too, including around 70 people who gathered in the middle of the Auraria campus in Denver.

“These are qualified teachers and I think we should be doing better by them,” said state Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, who has championed legislation that would end the disparity between pay for adjuncts and their full-time faculty counterparts. “Ultimately that impacts the quality of the education.”

The community college system contends that its funding ranks below all other higher education institutions in the state and that it needs the workforce flexibility of employing part-time instructors. Creating more full-time positions would be cost-prohibitive for students and unresponsive to the state’s economic needs, said Colorado Community College System President Nancy McCallin.

“The two primary sources of funding – tuition as well as state funding – really restrict us from a financial standpoint from being able to operate in any other model,” McCallin said.

Adjuncts and full-time faculty are paid at significantly different rates. For “part-time” and “full-time” instructors teaching identical standard credit loads of 30 hours per week, the system estimated it would spend $20,828 on average this year in salaries for adjuncts and $53,693 on average for full-time instructors, who also receive benefits, according to budget documents.

Starting in July, adjuncts will be eligible for health insurance if they work 30 hours a week or more, according to the Community College System.

The community colleges assert only one-third of adjuncts want a full-time teaching job. At current staffing levels that would represent 1,270 employees. Adjuncts trying to piece together a career and their allies in the legislature say the result of this “two-tiered system” of payment pushes highly educated and accomplished education professionals to the edge of financial disaster.

Adjuncts Teeter on the Edge

Adjunct professor Nathanial Bork says he and his wife are “good at being poor.”

To save money, the couple has had to forgo a plumber for their broken kitchen sink, not to mention the expensive genetic testing to diagnose their daughter’s developmental disability.

Adjunct college instructor Nate Bork reads with his daughter, Cheyenne, 7, at the Arvada, Colo., home on Monday morning, March 9, 2019. Bork says he and his wife are “good at being poor.” Bork said the couple has forgone a plumber to fix their broken kitchen sink and expensive genetic testing to diagnose their daughter’s developmental disability.

Joe Mahoney / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Adjunct college instructor Nate Bork reads with his daughter, Cheyenne, 7, at the Arvada, Colo., home on Monday morning, March 9, 2019. Bork says he and his wife are “good at being poor.” Bork said the couple has forgone a plumber to fix their broken kitchen sink and expensive genetic testing to diagnose their daughter’s developmental disability.

“It’s frustrating; It’s humiliating,” Bork said. “You keep telling yourself, ‘If I get full-time, it’ll all work out.’”

Hand-written thank you letters are among the trophies Bork displays at home. They are from students who found direction, their voice and a compassionate ear in his class.

“He was the first professor who treated me as a person,” said Christina Mazingo, who flunked out of her first try at college. Mazingo now supports herself as a nanny as she works towards nursing school.

Gene Gonzalez is a former Marine who says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury. “There are times I am so fatigued while I come to his class,” Gonzalez said. “But once his lecture starts, I feed on his motivation and energy.”

Bork has paid a personal cost to help them. Last year he made $25,292 working full-time hours at two part-time jobs at the Community College of Aurora and Arapahoe Community College, while serving as adjunct representative to the faculty senate and running special projects.

This semester Bork teaches four classes, a number which could increase, decrease, or altogether disappear without notice next semester. He is paid around $2,000 per class but each class requires 2 1/2 hours outside class to prep lessons, grade and respond to student questions. He estimates it levels out to about $13 an hour.

Without a work office, he grades from home.

Over 90 percent of adjuncts surveyed by the Colorado Community College System last year said pay was their No. 1 concern, but nearly 70 percent said they were satisfied with their jobs. Bork himself attests to the joy of teaching and improving students’ lives.

In different survey by the American Association of University Professors, 77 percent of Colorado adjuncts responded that pay and benefits were inadequate for their needs.

“There are definitely points when we were down to our last $100 and didn’t know where money would come from,” Bork said.

With no savings, Bork and his wife teeter one step away from “catastrophe,” he said. He is considering a career change.

Adjunct college instructor Nate Bork teaches an introduction to philosophy course at Arapahoe Community College's campus in Parker, Colo., on Monday morning, March 9, 2019. Bork says he and his wife are “good at being poor.” Bork said the couple has forgone a plumber to fix their broken kitchen sink and expensive genetic testing to diagnose their daughter’s developmental disability.

Joe Mahoney / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Adjunct college instructor Nate Bork teaches an introduction to philosophy course at Arapahoe Community College’s campus in Parker, Colo., on Monday morning, March 9, 2019. Bork says he and his wife are “good at being poor.” Bork said the couple has forgone a plumber to fix their broken kitchen sink and expensive genetic testing to diagnose their daughter’s developmental disability.

The Debate Over Hiking Pay

“I’d love to pay our adjunct instructors more,” McCallin said. “Given where we have our funding at the state level, we are not funded in a manner that would allow that.”

The system has made a “concerted effort” and a “significant commitment” to increase adjunct pay, she said, including a increase in the pay rate per credit hour over the past five years.

In the past two years, two bills have failed in the state legislature that would have changed adjunct pay and working conditions. House Bill 14-1154 and Senate Bill 15-094 would have granted equal status to part-time instructors and full-time instructors, and was estimated to cost between $55.4 million and $97 million.

The community college system lobbied against the bills, because they would lead to the state’s “micromanagement” in community college business, McCallin said.

Senator Kefalas is not giving up. The community colleges could dedicate money currently in their reserve funds to begin to increase adjunct pay next year, he said.

“There should be a way for them to put some skin in the game to do this initial increase, and that would give us more ability to go to the Joint Budget Committee of the legislature and ask for money,” Kefalas said.

A task force convened by the Community College System devised a series of recommendations to improve adjuncts’ work conditions, including raising their pay 28 percent which was estimated to cost roughly $20 million.

In February, the State Board for Community Colleges and Occupational Education, which oversees the system, agreed to implement almost every other recommendation, such as providing more opportunities for adjuncts to participate in college decision-making and compensating adjuncts 10 percent of their expected pay when a class is cancelled on short notice.

However, the board did not approve the recommendation of increasing adjunct pay, citing the difficult “current political environment.”

Right now the community college system is requesting $43 million from the legislature’s capital development committee to fund construction projects.

English adjunct Lawless is a leader in the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which pushes for recognition of adjuncts.

“Stop building all those buildings,” Lawless said, on her way home from the food bank. She wants to see greater investment in instruction. “Let’s put the foundations under the schools where the foundations belong, which is in the teaching.”

Staffing levels at Colorado community colleges.

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Staffing levels at Colorado community colleges.

21 thoughts on “Colorado Community Colleges Rely on Poverty-Level Instructor Workforce

  1. most adjunct professors work full time in the field they teach. That is why they are “adjunct” professors. They were never designed to live off of adjunct pay. Sounds like she is too lazy to get a full time job in the field she teaches. I know—- I was an adjunct professor for over 18 years!!!

    • Clearly you have no knowledge of this subject. That you believe that most adjuncts work full time in their field is so completely incorrect that words escape me. This could not be further from the truth. Their field is education and there are simply not enough funds allocated by state governments to adequately address higher education. The ridiculously low pay for adjuncts is a nation wide disgrace. The situation is similar at Metro State and CCD on the Auraria Campus.

        • Lisa, thank you. What most people do not realize is that many adjuncts teach full -time course loads, but for a fraction of the pay for teaching the same class as non-contingent faculty (same textbook, same curriculum). As a bonus, all hours spent prepping and grading are unpaid. Colleges and universities exploit these workers because it is profitable. Money flows to administration and amenities (new fitness centers, coffee bars, big-screen TVs). Instruction — the one place students and parents ASSUME their tuition dollars are going — is not a priority. The problem is not “lazy” adjuncts. If that were the case, Americans would have to come to grips with the idea that those tuition payments are funding laziness (and a rock climbing wall) because we teach 75% of ALL college classes.

    • Sandy, you’re describing a world that no longer exists. This is how the adjunct started, and how they were intended to be used on campus. Now the majority of EVERY campus in the country – up to 80% of the faculty – are adjuncts. Why hire full time faculty when they can hire an army of adjuncts for pennies on the dollar? And if your calling happens to be a teacher, you’re really out of luck. Tenure track positions are the myths of yester year. My partner, a proud professor, teaches at three universities in three different states. She’s certainly not LAZY – when she gets classes (IF she gets classes!) she teaches 80-100 hours per week. Does that sound lazy to you? And yet, for all that hard work, her pay is so far below poverty she gets a nose bleed trying to look that high.

    • You are being very judgemental to use the word “lazy.” You have no knowledge of others’ personal circumstances. There are many teachers who wouldover a full time nob, like myelf. However, year after year that financial line has gone elsewhwere, like more advisors despite declining enrollments, or a nice dining patio, etc. Every year our department head makes the request and has been turned down. They argue that all these improvements are for the students. Wouldn’t it help the students more if the adjunct instructors morals were lifted and they wouldn’the have so much personal struggle?

  2. My partner is one of them. She is paid for 3 “contact hours” per class per week, even though she must maintain no less than 27 office hours per week (unpaid, of course). Because the office hours are not paid for they can’t be enforced. But if she doesn’t do it she’ll never get another class. They can schedule classes at a whim, or take classes away without warning or excuse. She may never get another class – they’re under no obligation to explain why.

    She can’t plan a budget or schedule any sort of travel because she’s never told in advance if or when she’ll get work. She receives NO benefits of any kind. There is no job security, and absolutely no hope for advancement. When she’s working, if she’s “lucky” enough to get classes, her hours reach 80-100 per week. All this while earning sub-poverty wages AND struggling to pay off her own student loans. This passed criminal LONG ago.

  3. Great job Caprice! And well written, Anna. It sounds like a foundation has been built in Colorado. Let’s keep it going! So excited!

  4. This is why I left a tenured chair position at Red Rocks Community College. It got embarrassing to ask professionals to work 15 weeks for $1,700.00 per 3 credit course…basically $100 per week before taxes…

  5. Thanks to Caprice and Nathan for bringing this issue to light for the rest of us. It’s time this conversation happens with all of those invested in higher education.

  6. Adjuncts are part-time, by definition. It makes no sense to hire a full-time person in many fields because they could not teach a full-time load. It makes sense to offer foreign languages, but how many sections of Arabic can you fill?

    Also, the adjucts fail to mention that they are paid on average between $20 and $30 per hour. They get paid at some colleges in Colorado over $20 an hour just to attend meetings and training. Ask someone who works for $10 an hour if they think adjunct are treated so badly…

  7. Brian,

    You are making some valid points, but your logic is flawed. Look at the numbers. The majority of all classes are taught by part-time faculty. While some courses, like certain language classes, require flexibility, core classes, like English, Math, and countless others that all students must take, don’t fall into that category. There is a demand for these positions. Does the person making $10 an hour have two Master’s degrees? The point that adjuncts are trying to make is that we should be compensated for what we are worth. Incidentally, while we may earn $20 for professional training, that situation might occur two- three times throughout a semester. When you factor in preparing for each class, grading, meeting students outside of class, responding to emails, and all of the other responsibilities we have, it doesn’t even come close to $20 an hour.

    Get your facts straight.

  8. One point that’s often overlooked is that many adjuncts teach six, eight, or even more courses, usually at different colleges, just to make ends meet. These people are called “road warriors.” Community colleges say that it takes roughly 10 hours per week to do everything needed for an average three hour course. Ten times eight is 80 hours per week, and this doesn’t include for commuting time between colleges. Despite being highly qualified and capable, these teachers must reduce the effort they put into each class, and this lowers the QUALITY of education at Colorado’s community colleges. Further, some community colleges have a 60 percent turnover rate, annually. This also reduces QUALITY of education. No teacher is as good teaching a course the first time as in teaching it repeatedly. The bottom line here is that the taxpayers in Colorado are getting hosed. Their children are not getting a high quality education.

  9. I’m an adjunct working in Massachusetts. Based on the article, it appears we get about 50% more per class with our union contract and higher cost of living. But it’s hardly fair or enough. Here’s how I think we adjuncts need to be looking at this. We should compare our pay to the total compensation of the full timers. Not that they’re getting rich, but it’s a lot more than we get. The article says the average Colorado community college full time professor makes $53,693 in salary, plus benefits. What are the benefits worth? My research shows here in Massachusetts, it’s about 50% of the salary. (We have union contracts. Benefits range from health, retirement, life insurance to sabbaticals, sick leave, bereavement and even time off for being quarantined!) If it’s 50% in Colorado, the full timers’ total compensation is about $80,000 per year. Let’s assume 20% of their compensation is for non-teaching work, like committees, student advising, etc. That leaves about $64,000 for teaching. If a full workload is 10 courses a year, as it is here, they’re getting compensated at $6,400 per course. How does that compare to the salaries for adjuncts for doing the IDENTICAL

  10. work? (If some of my assumptions about Colorado are wrong modify what I’ve done. But you get the gist of it.) The bottom line is, would you imagine anyone these days saying a woman or minority is going to be paid one-third of what other people get for doing the same work? Outageous! Yet it’s totally ok for Colorado’s adjuncts to be paid one-third of full timers for doing the identical work.

    (Sorry for the split post. I pushed the wrong button.)

  11. How did women and minorities get worked into this? I’m a former starving Black woman adjunct English instructor who had to endure racial ignorance and/or hostility from coworkers in addition to the frustration and humiliation mentioned in the article. My career turned into a part-time passion supported by full-time “temp” jobs in nonprofit or academic offices until the economy dried up. Ultimately, I don’t miss teaching, but I miss working 9 to 5 in higher ed. Talk about soul-crushing!

  12. How much does Nancy McCallin make? Or any of the campus presidents? Is there a correlation here between, let’s say, the CEO of Walmart and any of their cashiers?

  13. I am considering getting a Masters degree to teach specifically at community college because I had such an amazing experience myself at a California CC. Now I’m living in Colorado and this articles makes me hesitate greatly! Take on $30,000+ of student debt to be paid like this? Although I would desire a full-time position, it seems like those are few and far between! And I have no question that the teaching would be its own reward in and of itself, but I’m already concerned about income and I don’t have that added debt yet. Such a same that potential teachers of our youth question the entire career because of poor pay! I agree with the comments above that we need to look again at what the higher ed’s priorities are! Pay the teachers if you want the students to succeed!!! A teacher can’t focus 100% on her class if she’s worried how the rent will get paid! Now to make some tough decisions…

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