The Adjunct Crisis: Exploring the Dark Side of Tacoma Community College

If you are thinking of taking a class at a community college, or if you have a child, if you are in business that cares if people have disposable income to spend in your shop, if you are patriotic and think America is the best country in the world, or if you pay taxes—which, if you think about it, is almost everyone—then you should know a dirty little secret about community colleges. Most of the teaching done at them—including at TCC—is performed by a group of people known collectively as “contingent faculty,” e.g., part-timers and adjunct faculty. Community colleges, created to cater to returning World War II GIs using their veterans’ benefits, used to provide the best value in education anywhere; now the whole thing is a racket that exploits true commitment to extract wealth while providing diminishing educational quality. All of American academia is infected with the stench of adjunct exploitation, but the community colleges are where it smells the worst, and TCC is cursed with proximity. So let’s start there.

All of American academia is infected with the stench of adjunct exploitation, but the community colleges are where it smells the worst.”

Community colleges are an important and cheap way to earn credits for courses that are required by Washington’s four-year institutions. All of Washington’s state universities must accept credits earned at its community colleges. For example, five-credit courses taken at TCC cost $525.85. The same course at UWT is $1842.00. Anyone who is interested in education, whether getting it or paying for it, would be kind of crazy not to go the community college route. Consumers of education can find genuinely outstanding teaching at TCC, but there are forces not visible that can affect the quality of one’s education. The important statistic that divides Washington’s two-year and four-year institutions of higher education is the unbalanced percentages of full-time to part-time faculty. According to a 2011 white paper by Washington’s Senate Committee Services, the total part-time workforce at four-year schools was only 29.9 percent, while the same workforce at two-year institutions was 65.1 percent. Washington is slightly better than the national average, which was 69.8 percent.

American education used to be the envy of the world, now it ranks 29th in quality and 1st in cost. As an adjunct faculty member at TCC, if I were lucky enough to teach two courses per quarter (2/3 time), I would make around $20,000 per year (gross), which given the amount of work that goes into my classes and students’ well-being, comes out to be about $5 per hour (not an exaggeration). TCC would have to hire one more adjunct to teach 3 courses per year to make one full-time equivalent (FTE) teacher. If I were full-time faculty teaching 9 courses per year, I would be paid somewhere around $70,000, plus benes. But by hiring two people to equal one FTE instead of one full-time human, the institution will save over $40,000, which they can shunt into beautiful new buildings, advertisements, and bigger salaries for needless administration.

“Families of close to 100,000 part-time faculty members are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars a year to the taxpayer.”

Adjuncts perform the vast majority of teaching of undergraduates at community colleges and receive none of the benefits of full-time employment: health insurance, time off to perform research, selection of what courses they would like to teach, and the right to attend faculty meetings that determine curriculum and hiring. Exemplified by job insecurity, invisibility, fractional wages, no benefits, and outright hostility, the life of an adjunct is poor, even when compared to fast food workers. As NBC reported in 2015, “Families of close to 100,000 part-time faculty members are enrolled in public assistance programs,” at a cost of “nearly half a billion dollars a year” to the taxpayer. This is for a group of people who, individually, routinely work more than 40 hours per week. What is worse is this type of employment has been so normalized that any little bone negotiated by the union is celebrated as step toward parity.

“Any sort of honest teaching and learning dies in this climate, and it all becomes a race for the bottom.”

TCC will also try to hire the least qualified person (with a Master’s degree over a PhD) because he or she will be less likely to make waves or ask for fairer treatment, mostly because that person will not have experienced true academic freedom. Hiring a two-year degree in a subject that I have dedicated over twenty years of my life to learning (including publishing original research and training other PhDs to teach) is not an equivalency for the student. There are plenty of great teachers holding Masters’ degrees, but the exception has become the rule. Too often an undereducated professor can only tell a student that he or she is wrong but not explain why. Learning lies in the why of things. What was true education of the mind becomes training for a test, and community college becomes grade 13. Students might be happier that their classes are easier, but are they really getting the same education? Twenty years ago I would have said yes. Now, it is not even close.

I am describing corporate mentality as applied to education. The expedient, cost-effective balance produces a poorer product in the end. And we are all people, not widgets. People are not efficient. True innovation and learning happens through making mistakes rather than through rote learning and parroting back the answers to the test. American education is being driven into the ground; society itself will pay the price in lack of competitiveness and decreasing tolerance of diversity. Any sort of honest teaching and learning dies in this climate, and it all becomes a race for the bottom.

  1. This is very interesting and sad and it’s something I’ve never thought about or knew to think about. Thank you for sharing, I feel a little bit smarter and a tinge more aware for having read this!

  2. On the whole, this is an excellent presentation ofvthe facts; however, there are many excellent instructors at TCC and elsewhere with master-level degrees. No need to knock them. The school hires the best adjuncts they can get. In addition, by working at two schools many of us make a living wage,and Washington state does give us (excellent) benefits. This is unusual and greatly appreciated. The whole issue is indeed sickening and only likely to get worse as business models become the pattern for everything in America. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be professors.

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