PhD on Welfare
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.
by Dr. Wanda Evans-Brewer
I couldn’t have imagined, in my wildest dreams, that I would be a PhD on welfare. Even as I write this essay, it just doesn’t sound right – PhD and welfare – in the same sentence. It doesn’t make any earthly sense. Sadly, this has become a reality for me and many other academics across the country, and in for-profit schools, which routinely pay less than public, private, and community colleges, low wages and poor working conditions are the norm. It is that dirty little secret that colleges and universities have been keeping quiet about since the recession of 2008. Even though I see it, hear it, and I’m living it, I still can’t believe that it is actually happening to me.
As an overachiever and a proud intellectual, I earned a Bachelor’s in English, a Master’s in Education, 39 hours toward a degree in Psychology, and finally a doctorate in Professional Studies in Education. To add icing on the academic cake, I learned my calling very early in life. By 22, I knew that I was a teacher. What could be better than imparting knowledge, opening minds, creating and sharing great ideals while adding to the scholarly body of research? I was embarking on a life many refer to as “The Noblest of Professions,” only to end up applying for government assistance and unemployment.
I wasn’t prepared to be treated as a PhD in title only, to earn a poverty wage too insufficient for paying off the $100 thousand dollar school loan that I absorbed to earn the degree. Course offerings barely reflect my level of expertise, yet I accept them because I need the work, and my students need a teacher. And every time a course is assigned at the last minute, it lowers one’s ability to function in a spirit of excellence which is the heart of the scholar. Most times, there is an expectation for one to teach the same course over and over without consideration of burnout or other skill sets.
Perhaps my precarious employment would be more tolerable if my employer provided access to standard benefits such as health care, paid sick leave, and tuition reimbursement, but benefits are nonexistent. I am just a contract worker whose only option is to accept the contract or not. Per this contract, I get paid every 8 weeks and there is no avenue to express concerns or request an adjustment.
Friends and family sit confused inquiring how this can be happening to me. To keep my spirits lifted, they lovingly remind me that I’m one of the “Heavy Hitters” in education. I’ve taught every level from pre-school, grammar school, high school, and currently for-profit higher education; I am no longer just a teacher; I am in fact a Professor preparing the next generation of minds to go forward and lead. While I embrace their love and encouragement, I reflect on how I used to love the ring of being called a professor… I was amazed at how much respect the title garnered. I enjoyed being asked what I did for a living. The conversation inevitably went as follows: “Wow! You’re a professor? Really, where do you teach? Hey, Wanda’s a professor! You mean like a real professor? You must be really smart. And she got her PhD! They have to call you “Dr,” too. You must love that? Girl, go make that money!”
Now, I think to myself, “Go make that money?” What money? I’m on welfare: I’m stuck in a vicious cycle of deferring school loans, mounting debt, and an inability to convert from contract worker to full-time faculty. In my saddest state, I think that if I had known what was in store for me, I may not have taken up this endeavor.
In my youth, I wanted to be a dancer and a writer, God directed me towards education. And after seven years of great evaluations with no clear options or offers to move up to full-time faculty, I have become mildly jaded. Not because I don’t love teaching and not because I don’t appreciate learning and certainly not because I don’t value investing in myself, but rather because I stand in front of my students, a hypocrite, imparting and inspiring them to be great thinkers, and scholar practitioners while I struggle to maintain my family on poverty wages. In 2014, I earned the same amount of income that I earned in 1989 when I was a preschool teacher, fresh out of college with little to no teaching experience.
Universities and colleges have to offer more to professionals that commit to the profession of education. They must reflect on their practice of treating their instructors as mere “rent-a-professors,” and they must decide to offer a living wage and multi-year contracts with clear opportunities to advance in their schools. By doing this, they demonstrate not only a clear belief that both students and their employees matter, but they will effectively bring “nobility” back to the teaching profession.
Dr. Wanda J. Evans-Brewer: professor, author, and mentor. She has been an educator for 26 years and has published 4 books. She currently hosts a successful Internet radio program called Beyond The Surface Radio, which is intelligent Internet radio laced with street reality and good-ole’-fashioned wisdom.