TRAVERSE CITY-- In January, Northwestern Michigan College teachers role-played a penniless existence to give them a glimpse of what some students endure.
"In the debriefing afterward, a faculty member pointed out that some of us are living at poverty level and facing the very same issues," said Teresa Scollon, 50, who teaches half-time at NMC.
Scollon is an adjunct, defined as a part-time instructor who works on contract. The college's 212 adjuncts have no real job security, no health benefits and no way to buy into them. They earn about $10,000 a year for teaching a half-time load of classes.
The campus is buzzing about the efforts of a Faculty Compensation Review Committee, which will announce its findings next spring.
The committee began its job by first defining a set of value statements, including: "We believe in a fair wage."
Fairness is key
Adjuncts say fairness is the key issue. Full-time instructors earn $40,772 to $81,546 with health benefits, sick pay, tuition benefits, and vacation.
Adjuncts interviewed for this article calculate they earn about $10 to $13 an hour. They receive tuition benefits and may participate in a retirement plan.
Jim Press, a full-time NMC instructor who sits on the compensation committee, said the analysis is daunting. It's not a strictly apples-to-apples comparison, he said.
Full-time staffers also serve on committees, mentor and manage adjuncts, develop class materials, shape policy, meet with students, attend meetings, and set learning goals, Press said.
NMC now relies on 209 part-time contractors, in step with community colleges and universities across the country, said Mark Howell, a full-time communications instructor.
"It's easier and cheaper for schools to hire part-time help. You've got part-time instructors who are very qualified, very skilled and doing almost full-time work. It's not fair, and it's not right, but it's also very difficult to change," he said.
NMC ranks sixth among 28 Michigan community colleges in the ratio of adjuncts to full-time staff.
NMC President Tim Nelson said he's aware the trend can go too far.
"The percentage of part-time and full-time is something we have to watch very carefully," Nelson said. "If you go too far, you will change forever the culture of the institution and not be able to do the things you need to do."
Adjuncts sought and received a greater voice. For the first time in NMC history, an adjunct was allowed to sit on the Faculty Council. Susan Odgers was elected to the position, and also sits on the compensation review committee.
"These are huge steps," Howell said. "It would be irresponsible not to take their needs into consideration."
Reliance on adjuncts worries some
In a 2008 survey, the vast majority of adjuncts said they receive excellent support. But only 38 percent said they were satisfied with the salary scale.
The growing reliance on adjuncts is ominous for educated professionals who can't make a livable wage, Scollon said.
"What's at stake here is, is it possible to make a living as a teacher? That's what it boils down to," said Scollon, who holds two master's degrees. "NMC has been a great place to work in all things except pay. It's increasingly evident that the top of the house does not understand the conditions we're living under."
Some adjuncts such as Terri Reisig, 63, don't mind the pay, which supplements her full-time public school salary. The NMC job has made her a better high school teacher with its intellectual challenges and collegial rapport. And the communications staff provides her with a syllabus, assignments and exams.
"For me, it's the perfect fit," she said.
Humanities adjunct Dorothy Eisenstein, 53, said there's an impression that adjuncts simply show up, teach and leave. But she designed her humanities class that teaches dance history, choreography, and techniques.
She also organizes a concert at Milliken Auditorium each year to showcase her advanced dance students. Eisenstein said her love for dance and teaching has kept her on the adjunct job for 17 years.
To make ends meet, she teaches private dance lessons and sells clothes at Raven's Child downtown.
"A lot of people look at Dorothy and recognize her as the dance department," Howell said.
Sam Niemi, 32, just finished his first semester teaching accounting, a more challenging task than he expected. He acknowledged the $10.50 hourly rate was low, but he beefed up his resume, gained teaching skills and made future contacts. He works full-time, so money wasn't a huge factor.
"I think if someone is going to be an adjunct instructor, it shouldn't be for their livelihood. If it is, they need to find a new job," he said.