Friday, April 18, 2014

Only The 1% Can Afford to Teach in Higher Education

By Professor Doom

     I apologize for the hyperbole in the title, since it’s not particularly true today. But the trend in higher education is such that it will be true soon enough. People are indebting themselves for the rest of their lives for higher education, they should know just a bit more about where that money spent on education goes.

     More importantly, they should know that the money they are spending on their education is not going towards their education.

     There are many myths and illusions about higher education, and I’ve tried to cover them all. One illusion that needs to be dispelled is the myth of the college professor as this middle class guy who happens to have some obscure knowledge that students want (or need) to know.

     The “obscure knowledge” is true enough. It’s great that I can calculate the work done by a vector field on a particle moving along a helical path…but I accept that this isn’t particularly useful knowledge for most folks.

     The “middle class” part, however, is dying. Articles such as “Professors Making $10,000 a Year?” highlight the reality of higher education today. Over 70% of college instructors are adjuncts, part time teachers that make minimal pay with no benefits. They are paid per course, in some cases they are literally paid based on how many students they pass in their courses (for “some reason”, accreditation doesn’t see a conflict of interest in that).

     The pay for adjuncts is ridiculously low. You need to teach 35 classes or so a year to make a living at it comparable to what people think professors make. You have to be very lucky to get that many classes. An adjunct that does this is teaching 4 times as much as the “full time” faculty that still remain in the system. Adjuncts get no long term contracts, so they literally go from “barely getting by” to “starving” from one season to the next.

--I’ve said it before, but this is the tuition my students pay in a year to learn from me (it’s not a particularly expensive school, I have large classes). I don’t get 5% of that, and I’m paid far more than average. Where the heck does that money go?”

      I want to point out, that for much of the last two centuries, a student didn’t need to enter a lifetime of debt to pay for higher education, and the faculty weren’t paid starvation wages. Something very serious is changing in higher education, and it simply isn’t that no money is flowing into the system.

      Despite the vast sums of money coming in to higher education, it isn’t going to the educators. Much of it is, of course, being soaked up by the vast, quickly increasing, and grotesquely highly paid administrative caste, but there are other issues explaining why administration can get away with screwing over what are apparently the most highly educated members of society.

     Their accreditation period came up and someone on the main campus panicked when they realized what a few of us Adjuncts were doing.
It turned out that if you worked for several different campuses of the same college, both online and conventional, with none of them keeping up with what the others are doing, you could teach a lot of classes and make enough to live a decent life

--in response to accreditation looking, the institution offered an overworking adjunct a full time position. After accreditation stopped looking, they fired him and rehired him as an adjunct. I’m serious. This sort of Potemkin situation is quite common on campuses. The people that work in accreditation are the same people that work on college campuses; they know exactly the fraud that goes on. Why do you think they don’t stop it?

      First, administration controls what, supposedly, regulates higher education. Accreditation is supposed to stop abuses and the lack of integrity that are part of hiring adjuncts, but administration makes sure accreditation only checks every few years, and that such checks are fairly cursory. I’ve been on a few campuses where it’s been positively hysterical watching the wild swings in attention to quality of education vary from “accreditation review” years to “no accreditation review” years. Students are, of course, charged the same regardless of these reviews. Faculty, on the other hand, often get a little bit more pay with accreditation on the line, but pay reverts once accreditation stops looking.

“…They have similar rules at CTC. 9 classes a year, 20 for ECAF instructors. But the rules are ignored. Teach 20 a yaer for one campus on base (Ft. Hood), teach a dozen more… One hand doesn’t want to know what the other is doing because they all want/need their classes taught…”
--not just taught, but taught for as little as possible. Less money spent on education is more money spent on administrative salaries!

     Because the administrators that control higher education also work for accreditation, there’s a vast conflict of interest, one that is responsible for much of the fraud of higher education today. Only the most extreme fraud ever gets caught, and then the penalties are basically minor slaps on the wrist, along with a warning to “not get caught again.”

“…the science labs are void of chemicals and specimens. Akin to teaching a wood shop course without wood. I am sensing that this will not change…”
--if accreditation were legitimate, faculty wouldn’t have to deal with issues like this. In any event, education is completely irrelevant. Does anyone believe someone teaching 35 courses a year is really capable of delivering the same quality of education as someone working full time and teaching 8 a year?

     The system is so very ripe for fraud and abuse that even if I narrow the topic down to “adjuncts” there is more to it than just one or the other. The abuse I’ve detailed, but where’s the fraud? I mean, above and beyond the obvious lack of attention to quality of the education many are indebting themselves forever for.

     In most industries, when pay gets cut to almost nothing, the workers leave. But that hasn’t happened in higher education. Adjuncts are highly expendable, and when one leaves, another is quickly found. 

     Where are all these highly educated adjuncts coming from? 

I’ll address that next time.


  1. The grim truth is that US higher education is dying. The administrators are parasites and maggots feeding on the still-twitching corpse. In my opinion it should be seen as part of a more general decay and ossification of US cultural and economic life -- a downward spiral whose endpoint I can't discern.

    From a comparative point of view, a US degree is poor investment for money. It makes more sense to go elsewhere -- Scandinavian and German universities are free, while tuition in the rest of continental Europe is nominal. The same probably holds for the majority of Asian universities. Granted, there is the language problem.

    There's no hope of "reforming" the system -- it has a dynamic and momentum of its own. Perhaps the sagest advice is that of Dmitry Orlov: "Get the hell out of the USA":

  2. Don't bother coming to Canada. It's just as bad here in the Great White North.

    I first set foot on my alma mater 40 years ago and people were accusing it of being a degree factory. That was when only 20,000 students were there.

    I barely recognize the place now. Many of the buildings I remember were either remodelled or replaced by bright and glossy carbuncles (as Prince Charles, architecture critic, would call them). There's hardly an open space that doesn't have something being built on it. And, by the way, there are now about 40,000 students there and it finally became what people accused it of being when I was an undergrad. It is a degree factory.

    Meanwhile, the president is bound and determined to make the institution one of the top 20 in the world (good luck there, madame!). She's drawing nearly a million dollars a year in salary and lives in a house worth about as much. Guess who pays for it? While we're at it, guess who's often being chatted up for kickback money (formerly known as donations)?

    Meanwhile, the institution I used to teach at was proud of the fact that it was one of the lowest-paying establishments of the provincial system. At the same time, though, there was constant whining about not being able to attract the "best and brightest". To paraphrase that Kevin Costner movie, pay them and they will come.

    Maybe not so fast, though. Having an advanced degree in that institution wasn't a good idea. I was subject to frequent harassment and abuse from my departmental administrators because of my education. It became worse with each additional degree.

    The fact is that the educational system is feudalism revisited. Institutions are run like petty duchies and the department heads act like they are lords of their manors. Standards, as such, don't exist any more and keeping one's job is no longer dependent on doing it properly. One must either be politically well-connected or constantly win popularity contests (formerly known as student evaluations).

    I eventually threw in the towel nearly 12 years ago and sought my own fortune. I'm much better off for having done so.

  3. It's good advice, but a little impractical...I just can't leave my family here, and I can't hardly take every blood relative with me.

    It is odd how I have friends that have left the country for their education, particularly medical education. The language barrier isn't so bad when you're motivated, I guess. On friend went to France to become an anesthesiologist, then, when he couldn't handle the classes there, went to Brazil. Heck of a way to become multilingual.

    Another is in Czechoslovakia to study medicine; queerly, he insists inflation in the US isn't so bad, right at 1.5% like the government says.

  4. I just finished reading your book and applaud your writing and expose of the fraud and rot of higher education. Anyone not on the inside would have no idea of the truth you reveal. I'm curious about something though, I know administrators want to string along as many students as possible for as long as possible to increase retention, but I'm also seeing a huge push here in the state of Texas to push students out after 4 years with some rather harsh punitive measures. I don't understand the real motive behind this, why is graduating in 4 years a magic bullet? The only reason I can see is that our school is trying to reach Tier One status which means access to federal grant money for research and must get rid of the weaker students, the ones they've been exploiting since our school's inception and now will kick them to the curb to serve more affluent students who are smart enough to teach themselves and can afford to pay more. The schools are starting to charge out of state tuition for those who exceed 20 hours past the minimum needed for the degree, they're forcing all student to register for 15 hours each semester (these are mainly Hispanic, first generation, working, students) and have raised up admissions standards a little, but actually are admitting student into what's called the University College which is a holding stall until students meet requirements for their major. In essence, they will admit students into the university who will never be able to declare their major requirements, makes the University College look bad, but makes the Department's numbers look better. It's a hidden filtering system. Why are schools so concerned not only with students graduating, but now it's about graduating them in 4 years? What's the real driving issue here?