My Experience as an Adjunct in a For-Profit College
As a way to shine a light on low-road practices in for-profit higher education, we issued a Call For Papers: Confronting the For-Profit College Culture. The positive response to the CFP shows that faculty want to be heard, and the forthcoming series of stories will highlight the unique set of circumstances that faculty face. It bears repeating that faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. Are you a for-profit faculty member? Join us here and submit your story.
In my experience as an adjunct at a for-profit school, it is when the principles, techniques, and jargon well suited to running the financial aspects of schools are applied in classrooms that things go wrong. Forcing the activities of the classroom into the mold designed to rationalize commerce is an idea only Procrustes’ accountant would love.
I want to say unambiguously that the courses I teach in a for-profit school offer a motivated and prepared student the opportunity to learn many valuable things applicable to a career in the field. To be fair, fully one third of my students are such pupils.
But as an adjunct there I suffer the restlessness of nearly no academic freedom whatsoever. Course work and curricula, grading criteria and expectations, are all entirely created by unseen others. My role is only to monitor and record, enter metrics, follow best practices and to attempt to “facilitate the delivery of the materials” to our “demographic.” What teaching and original thought I can squeeze into the model is small. I am forbidden from altering and from adding to the materials. Enrichment of the given course materials is discouraged.
There is absolutely no admissions requirement beyond a GED. As a business seeking profits no potential customer is turned away, so long as the checks clear all are welcome. That’s the business model of course, and if we were selling socks that would be the way to go. Sadly we do not sell socks.
Some students are admitted despite their lack of the basic material requirements and educational skills to succeed in school. The business owners are aware of this problem, and their response has been to create a grading system skewed so as to make it nearly impossible to fail my course; “the customer must get what (degree) they paid for,” as applied to the classroom.
Student retention, we are told, is our primary goal. My irregular and unpredictable employment, I am reminded regularly and predictably, depends upon it. Thus many of my students receive passing grades and eventually degrees and are led to believe they are on a path to success in this highly competitive field. Most are not.
I am complicit in my own exploitation each time I accept a teaching assignment because the for-profit model stops short of my compensation. The workload is heavy and the pay too light. I receive no benefits, of course. In five years at the school (with consistently positive annual reviews of my work) I have never received a raise or a bonus. Nor have any of the other hundreds of adjuncts. What is truly odd is that no one can say to whom it is I ought to appeal for a raise. There is nobody at all with whom I can negotiate for fair compensation.
The wall between the administrative corporate managerial side and the educational side of the company is impenetrable. I have been working for forty years, and never before held a job in which I had nobody to speak with about compensation. I have to quietly applaud the cynical corporate brilliance of simply eliminating the position and so removing the conversation entirely.
Our company’s single largest owner is a giant Wall Street firm I fear to name. They are doing quite well and enjoy regular raises and benefits, and bonuses large enough to make it into the newspapers. The ‘business model of education’ is good business for them. They are profiting. I am not.
But I fear complaining aloud. One condition of my employment is to agree never to speak to the press about any aspect of the school on pain of termination. Should I be found out there would be no fuss, no public forum for me to be heard. The company would simply claim not to have any classes available for me, and in the slick silence of corporate indifference, that would be that.
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