For five years, a Galesburg woman has fulfilled her passion to teach psychology at a collegiate level, but for now it’s only part-time.
As she’s anchored geographically by her husband’s job, Meredith Witherell took an adjunct teaching position at Galesburg’s Carl Sandburg Community College.
“I’ve always wanted to teach at the collegiate level, but unfortunately Sandburg isn’t hiring any full-time instructors in the social sciences department,” Witherell said. “So the only way I can teach is to be an adjunct.”
As such, she’s part of an increasing population throughout the country, and, thus far, Witherell said the experience has been generally positive.
Still, there are “a number of issues that make being an adjunct a little more difficult,” including the lack of benefits, limited resources and instability from term to term.
A full-time/part-time pay disparity
There’s a nationwide disparity in pay between the adjunct and full-time professors, too. And that applies to community colleges in western and central Illinois.
Adjuncts at Heartland Community College start out receiving $728 per credit hour, with a 12 credit-hour (three classes) limit per semester, according to Sarah DielHunt, the associate vice-president for academic affairs. That works out to $2,184 per class.
Full-time instructors just starting out receive an annual salary of $40,278 and are required to teach 15 credit-hours (five classes per semester) among other full-time expectations. That would break out to $4,027 per class, if teaching were the only requirement of the full-time job, which it is not.
Full-time instructors are contractually required to fulfill a certain number of office hours, serve on college committees, participate in curricula planning, attend regular department meetings, among other provisions.
Some adjuncts seek flexibility
For many adjuncts, the lower pay is a trade for flexible hours.
When Jenny Robinson took an adjunct position at Sandburg two years ago, she was looking specifically for part-time work while her kids were young.
“It’s kind of my dream job,” she said. “I love being in the classroom, but I only teach Tuesdays and Thursdays so I still get to help out at my girls’ school.”
But for adjuncts not looking for flexibility, like Christine Maisto of Galesburg, it can create precarious financial situations.
She works at four separate colleges to maintain a modest living.
In one week, Maisto goes to Monmouth College and Black Hawk East Community College in Galva to teach Latin, Sandburg for English composition, and Spoon River College in Macomb to tutor.
For the last two years, her collection of adjunct jobs merited about $21,000 annually.
“It’s tough because you’re in an unstable situation so you’re constantly looking for work,” Maisto said, “and you need to keep your car running, you need a good cellphone for email … so, yeah, I feel a little bit like a hamster on a wheel.”
Heartland ebbs adjunct reliance
A look at the percentage of part-time instructors at area community colleges over the past 20 years has revealed not a single trend, but individual patterns. The majority of classes at Black Hawk East, Heartland Community College and Illinois Central Community College are taught by adjuncts.
And at least at Heartland, that’s no accident.
The number of classes taught by adjuncts fell 32 percentage points in the last 20 years, showing the largest decline in adjunct faculty reliance among area schools.
Heartland started driving down its reliance on adjunct faculty — the 70 percent of classes taught by part-timers in 1993 was strategically pushed to 38 percent by 2013, according to DielHunt.
“Community colleges have kept education affordable through hiring part-time faculty, so we know our percentages will always be higher,” she said.
“On the other hand … when you don’t have enough full-time faculty manning programs and ensuring they meet particular job needs in the community … that can be problematic.”
Black Hawk East has also reduced its adjunct reliance since 2003 going from 70 percent adjuncts to 49 percent in 2013.
And Illinois Central Community College in East Peoria has actually maintained a majority of classes taught by full-timers over the past 10 years. In 2003, about 44 percent were taught by adjuncts, dropping to about 42 percent in 2013.
On the flip side, Carl Sandburg College and Spoon River Community College have more classes taught by part-timers than full-time instructors.
Adjunct-taught classes at Spoon River College increased most significantly among the five colleges, by 9.3 percentage points over the last decade. There, part-timers taught 44 percent of the total courses in 2003, which went up to 53.3 percent in 2013.
Sandburg has increased its use of adjunct faculty slightly. About 52 percent of their courses were taught by part-timers in 2003, rising to 54 percent in 2013.
Julie Gibb, vice-president for academic affairs at Sandburg, said it’s difficult to pinpoint specific reasons as to the composition of faculty.
Their breakdown could be based on a number of factors, she said, such as Sandburg’s number of dual credit courses or health career programs, both of which largely employ adjuncts from participating schools or clinical sites.
More adjuncts also enable the college to stay “nimble with our career tech offerings by responding to labor market needs in our district,” Gibb added.
Adjuncts serious about teaching
Anne Colloton, an eight-year adjunct at Heartland, says a part-time status shouldn’t be perceived to mean less engagement with students. To that point, she’s even serving on Heartland’s assessment committee to find ways to better assess student learning and understanding, for which she receives a $100 to $200 stipend.
“I have my master’s degree in this, so I’m engaged in educating myself and concerned with how my students are doing,” she said.
For Witherell, the role of adjuncts has shifted since her start five years ago.
“It used to be, ‘Here’s your class; here’s your textbook; have at it,’ and there wasn’t a lot of supervision,” she explained. “Now, there are yearly adjunct meetings … you have to meet with your dean one-on-one … it’s nice having some kind of accountability, going in and saying, ‘This is my plan for the semester.’ ”
It’s an enjoyable change, but Witherell said she’s hoping that accountability one day comes with the added benefits of full-time employment. Until then, she’ll keep doing what she loves as often as she can.
Student impact inconclusive
So, do students do better or worse with adjunct instructors? Studies from a variety of angles have, so far, proven inconclusive.
In 2012, a Cornell University professor found the increased use of adjuncts at four-year institutions negatively impacted graduation rates.
In that same respect, an ongoing project of the Pullias Center for Higher Education began in 2012 to explore various problems with non-tenure track faculty regarding student learning. It examined factors from insufficient professional development opportunities to a lack of space for student office hours.
Conversely, a September 2013 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found students at universities could benefit from nontenured teachers who don’t have research obligations.
Moreover, a study led by a University of Illinois professor came out two months later, concluding the use of part-timers had no impact on student success at community colleges.