As the fall semester begins on the small-town campus of St Michael’s College in Vermont, Sharyn Layfield is entering the autumn of her educational career with the freshman writing seminar, The Examined Life. Lately, though, she’s been examining her own career with both mild pride and disappointment. With a degree in creative writing, she’s been working short-term teaching jobs since her 30s, often skirting poverty, never achieving the job security traditionally associated with academia. Now in her 60s, approaching retirement age modestly in a compact mobile home, she’s helping build one of Vermont’s few adjunct unions to help colleagues gain the respect on the job she has long been denied.
As an organizer with a newly formed SEIU local, she acknowledges she’s “too old to benefit from the improvements for many more years,” but she’s organizing because “others have lived as I have—hand-to-mouth—and I want that to change for them…. Our goal is to be respected, included, and paid for the work we do; it’s that simple.”
With student debt and tuitions both ballooning across the country, a college degree is in many ways more expensive—or overvalued—today than ever. So why is the cost of academic labor—the kind Layfield struggles to provide every day—treated as dirt cheap?
Faculty activists acknowledge the consumer concerns about higher education’s value today, including poor completion rates, but link these to a cycle of underinvestment on the teaching side: The “churning of the faculty workforce…low salaries and over-reliance on part-time appointments” erode the quality and attentiveness of instruction, with long-term impacts on public institutions that have historically served the most challenged populations—the poor, people of color and first-generation college students. And as disinvestment and declining academic outcomes deepen, the overall institutional integrity of higher- education systems erodes.
One example is the California State University system: Between 2004 and 2013, the number of faculty teaching full-time or the equivalent ticked up 8 percent, but the population of full-time-equivalent students simultaneously jumped by 20 percent. SEIU’s adjunct-organizing project estimates that as of 2013, “22 percent of part-time faculty live below the poverty line,” significantly higher than the overall poverty rate nationwide.