The real cost of education

University adjunct instructors and low-income workers gathered at noon Wednesday to protest and collect signatures for a $15 minimum wage and $15,000 per class for adjuncts. ORACLE PHOTO/SEBASTIAN CONTENTO

Greg McCreery said he teaches 10 classes a year but doesn’t receive any health benefits for himself or his two children. He said he almost lost his house last summer and struggles with debt every day.

He is an adjunct instructor at USF.

McCreery and a host of other low-income professionals who range from adjunct instructors and graduate assistants to fast-food and child care workers, gathered outside the USF Library on Wednesday.  

The protesters collected signatures in support of better job security and pay for adjuncts and other low-income professionals as part of the Faculty Forward and the Fight for $15K National Day of Action.

The plight of adjunct instructors may not be noticeable to the average student, but the protesters said that behind their passion for teaching shown in the classroom exists a future of uncertainty and insecurity.

Becky Killik organized the rally, which attracted around 100 supporters and speakers. While working as a USF graduate assistant, she said she lived on food stamps because she didn’t earn enough money to buy groceries for herself. 

As low-income workers fight for higher wages, increasing the minimum wage has become a national issue. Different sects of workers are joining together to campaign unanimously for increased wages. 

At Wednesday’s protest, fast-food workers said they should make at least $15 an hour and adjuncts demanded $15,000 per class.

According to Killik, adjuncts currently earn an average of $2,500 for teaching a single class. The minimum wage in Florida is $8.05. A single class requires approximately 150 hours of work, according to the Provost office, meaning that adjuncts make a little over $16 an hour on average.

“We have worked for far too little,” Clay Bellamy said. “While the revenue that our labor produces is kicked up the ladder to someone who doesn’t need it as bad as we do.”

Bellamy works as an adjunct teaching English and creative writing for St. Leo University. He was the emcee at Wednesday’s protest.

“Most of us, in order to make a living wage, teach far more classes than full-time faculty,” Bellamy said. “Many of us work in multiple institutions going from place to place in order to cobble together a living wage. I had a good friend who taught at HCC, he used to leave his classes and go wait tables immediately afterward to make a living wage.”

Each speaker seemed to feed off the energy of the one before. The crowd responded to Bellamy and other speakers’ stories with outbursts such as, “That ain’t right!”

Summer Cunningham, an adjunct at USF spoke to the crowd without a megaphone because she said she wanted everyone to see her face as she spoke.

Cunningham urged undergraduate students to become informed about the situation facing many adjuncts. She said the value of one’s education is a direct reflection of the value of one’s professors. 

“Even though I am a doctor, I don’t make a living wage,” Cunningham said. 

She explained that an adjunct instructor is a college instructor hired at institutions of higher learning on a per class and per semester basis. Adjuncts sometimes don’t know if or when they’ll be working from term to term.

Adjuncts are not full-time employees, so they are often required to seek employment at multiple institutions, which means spending hours each week driving from one campus to the next.

“I don’t think most students realize that your professors … people who have changed your lives are in this situation,” Cunningham said. “We are underemployed, we don’t have benefits, we don’t make enough money to take care of our families and many of us live at or below the poverty level.”

There are 1,425 adjuncts and 1,934 instructors in the USF system. There are also 2,097 graduate assistants. According to the Senior Vice Provost and Dean of Office of Graduate Studies Dwayne Smith, within the adjunct sector of instructors, there are four distinct types of adjuncts.

There are adjuncts sought out by USF because they have a special skill set or profession that could be valuable in the classroom for students. Smith said Tampa’s position as a metropolitan area gave it a rich pool of talent to draw from.

The second type is made up of retired individuals who wish to remain active in education, but these are handled strictly on a case-by-case basis.

Graduate students who have exhausted their other funding from the university but are very near the end of acquiring a degree make up the third type. Smith said the school encourages them to help out if they have appropriate credentials and if they don’t have other sources of income available.

The final type of adjunct has completed a doctorate education and acquired a degree but can’t find a full-time job, so he or she relies on multiple adjunct positions at different campuses to make ends meet.

“What they do is string together a series of courses, often times at different universities. There’s a euphemism now  — they are referred to as ‘gypsy professors,’” Smith said. “They spend good portions of time dashing from college to college.”

Although these adjuncts are working full-time hours, they are not technically employed full-time.

“It’s a tough road to go down,” Smith said. “People have to start making decisions … you can only do this for so long. You have to come to terms that you probably aren’t going to land a full-time job in your profession of study. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.” 

The profession of adjunct professor isn’t meant to be a full-time job, though it can feel that way. With no benefits, little job security and low income, the role of adjunct is meant to supplement other incomes and foster a love of teaching.

“Sometimes you have to just move on and go do something else with your life,” Smith said.

Smith said USF made efforts to reduce its dependence on adjuncts  — small efforts, but enough to keep the number of adjuncts from rising. He also noted that the average earnings per class taught was somewhere between $3,500 and $4,000, not the $2,500 claimed by protesters. 

If Smith’s statistic is more accurate, adjuncts make over $23 an hour, which would be almost three times the minimum wage. However, he said adjunct income information isn’t recorded because every adjunct earns differently depending on the class, school or college. 

The real problem is the lack of hours. Since adjuncts are usually only permitted to teach one or two classes at a single university, their potential earnings are squandered by the inability to reach “full-time” status.

“It’s not a career,” Smith said. “We appreciate what they do (and) their efforts, but it’s not a career.”

Despite this, many adjuncts nevertheless dedicated their Wednesday afternoon to speak out and march together for the sake of their profession.

“I love teaching. I care about USF students. I care about this community. I want you to succeed,” Cunningham said. “I want your education to mean something, I want it to carry you forward into this world so you can do great things and you will do great things. I know you. I’ve seen you and had you in my classroom, but I want my education to mean something too.”