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Doing the Math: Student Loan Debt and the Adjunct Equation

Like other corporations, the university system makes a killing off part time workers and in turn, we are in debt for life.

One of my friends calls working in higher education a “Ponzi Scheme.”

This is how it works:

You put years of your life on a shelf in the name of higher education. You work hard, delay gratification and play the game to obtain the advanced degree. Unless you have wealthy parents, you take out student loans which you plan to pay back after landing the dream job as a full time tenured track professor. But, these days, full time jobs are few and far between. The university is no different than other corporations: full time, tenured track positions with benefits have been eradicated around the country and chopped up into part time work in the name of profit even if the university professes to be “non-profit.”

For those of you who do not know, part time professors are called “adjunct professors.” After we receive our low paychecks, many adjuncts then turn the money earned from the education system to the Department of Education to pay a portion of our whopping student loan debt.

Like other corporations, the university system makes a killing off part time workers and in turn, we are in debt for life. We are indentured servants.

In self-help movements, it is said, “You are as sick as your secrets,” and it is academia’s dirty little secret that approximately 74% of college professors are adjunct professors. We are exploited and abused. We have no job security, no retirement, we usually do not have health insurance, we are paid low wages, we have no power individually, and we often have enormous student loan debt because we believed in the myth that obtaining an advanced degree would open up new doors to meaningful work and a good quality of life. That was the promise, and how it used to work. Now, contrary to popular belief, many professors live beneath the poverty line.

In fact, we are not that different from workers at Wal-Mart, we just have a piece of paper as a “symbol” of “status.” Wal-Mart is notorious for the exploitation of their workers, they subscribe to a traditional corporate model, they will cut workers hours to avoid complying with the affordable care act, they abhor labor unions, they fire anyone who uses their voice, they pay their workers low wages, the people at the top get richer and richer, workers are often scared to lose their job even if the wages are meager, there have been reports of rampant abuse inside the company, and the more marginalized you are per race, class, gender, immigration status, etc.., the more likely you are to be at the bottom of the food chain while working to death.

And speaking of food, many employees at Wal-Mart are forced to rely on social welfare programs, such as food stamps in order to survive. The same is true for the part time professor. As one recent example, full time faculty at Kalamazoo Community College in Michigan, in solidarity with part timers, had a food drive for the part time faculty as they were running out of food because of an inability to make ends meet during a break. The secret is getting out, though. Headlines making the news include: “The PhD Now comes with Food Stamps,” and, “Colleges are Slashing Adjuncts Hours to Skirt New Rules on Health Insurance Eligibility.” In the meantime, colleges like NYU cater to the stars, so while some faculty might be at the food bank or homeless shelter, other faculty are given vacation homes as a perk.

Indeed, this is academia’s dirty little secret, but talking about it “embarrasses” the university, and challenges many well socialized ideas we have about the role of the university as a benevolent institution invested in humanitarian ideals centered on critical thinking, equality, and justice. It deconstructs the idea that all professors live an upper middle class lifestyle. It also challenges the idea that investing in higher education “pays off.”

Some adjunct professors have been or are homeless. Some are ill but cannot afford to go to the doctor. Some of our children have suffered from living under years of economic stress, classism, and no real health care. Many adjuncts have worked hard for years, piecing together multiple classes in order to survive, hoping that one day we will get the dangling carrot: a full time, tenured track faculty position, doing work we love, and creating a better world for all. We often feel invisible, silenced, nameless, depressed, oppressed, and shamed that we cannot make it out of the adjunct cycle. We also love to teach, so we stay.

One of the colleges I work for asked me not to tell anyone how much we make as it is “embarrassing” and “unprofessional” to mention, even when I was teaching a course on social class inequality, and the issue fit in with the ideas in the reading materials. Students want to talk about “real life” social problems, and the adjunct problem is, after all, real life. This same college pays me $2,700 for the entire semester which involves 15 weeks of work. Yet, students are billed over $3,000 a class in tuition. So that means one student pays more in tuition than I receive for my total wage. Since most of the work I do is online, the college does not have to pay much overhead. I buy my own computer equipment; I pay all my own expenses. And in return, when I tell the truth, I am told that I can no longer speak about this topic as it is “embarrassing.” Let it be known that I am embarrassed to work for an institution that makes a sickening profit off of me while claiming to care about social justice and equality.

Let’s do a little math. Say I have 30 students in the class, and they each pay $3,000 in tuition. The total amount of money brought in to the college is $90,000. Then, take that $90,000 and subtract my salary of $2,700. This equals $87,300. This is pretty standard per tuition rates and the wages of adjuncts at many colleges and universities across the country.

Let me sit for a moment in fantasy: If we were paid even half of what the university makes off of us, we could sustain a real life. We could have our student loan debts paid back in no time, indentured servants no more. We could buy houses and have places to live. We might even be able to take our children to the doctor, or ourselves.

Imagine all the economic and emotional depression which would be lifted just by being freed from the slavery of low wages and debt. Imagine, too, how this might help the current social problem of student loan debt in the country.

As the corporate university continues its empty rhetoric about their commitment to critical thinking, justice and equality, they might just want to contemplate this thought: justice and equality start at home.

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