The plight of adjunct instructors across academia has been receiving a lot more press of late from the NY Times to the Chronicle of Higher Education.. It comes as no surprise that online teaching, the fastest growing component of teaching in higher education, also uses adjuncts as an integral strategy for keeping costs down. Although many online classes are taught by full-time faculty, increasingly, programs are using adjuncts to teach the bulk on online offerings. Why is this so disturbing? As a niche, online programs offer a profitable segment in higher education, which is often used to subsidize traditional teaching.
The recent arrangement between Starbucks and Arizona State University illustrates my point. In an illuminating article in the June, 27th Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “Starbucks Plan Shines a Light on the Profits of Higher Education,” the author reflects that this partnership, “..has also opened a new window on the economics of online education, one that shows just how much “profit margin” there can be in a distance-education operation.”
The article, which is worth reading, provides detail on how the costs for offering an online BA to all Starbuck part-time employees will be divvied up between the company, ASU, government subsidies (via Pell Grants) and students. To pull off this arrangement, “ASU will be forgoing 59% of what it would receive if students were paying full freight.” (P4, reference below). In essence, OSU can offer such discounts, the author claims, since online costs less to deliver that face-to-face programs. So OSU gets thousands of new online students, Starbucks gets the acclaim of supporting its part-timers, and the baristas get a real benefit that can advance their career. It sounds like a win-win-win situation?
Who get’s left out of this party? The part-time online instructors who get about $3000 per course on average. Is anyone paying for their continuing education, or health benefits, or professional development? Probably not. They remain an exploited class online as they do on campus, made more galling by the fact that online learning is the profitable engine for many institutions. In the calculus of online learning economics, poorly paid adjuncts are an essential part of the equation that is never questioned by these institutions. Possibly the solution to exploited contingent online faculty is for them to apply to Starbucks to get some fairer compensation for their labor.
Blumenstyk, Goldie “Starbucks Plan Shines a Light on the Profits in Online Education,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 27, 2014.