The Real College Inequality Democrats Have Yet to Address

Photograph Source: Backbone Campaign – CC BY 2.0

Just in time for the 2020 presidential election, the Democrats have discovered that there is real economic inequality in the United States. But they have not yet fully addressed the role that the Democratic party and its leaders have played in creating this vast inequality that led to the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.

The presidential candidates have been slow to fully recognize the role that former President Bill Clinton’s globalization policies (NAFTA and WTO) played in the outsourcing of American jobs or the lowering of wages for workers.

As the Democratic presidential debates have shown, Vice President Biden is having a hard time defending his long public record, especially as an opponent of federally mandated “forced” busing to integrate our public schools decades after the Supreme Court’s overturning of racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). As a Senator Joe Biden was a free trade advocate as well.

But Senator Biden played a large role in creating inequality in two additional realms. He was a strong backer of a 2005 bankruptcy “reform” law that made it harder for people to file personal bankruptcy and to wipe out all of their debts. Given that perhaps as many as fifty percent of all personal bankruptcies in America are caused by debt incurred from health care not covered by insurance, this was an especially cruel blow to those seeking relief from their heavy debt loads. Senator Warren has already criticized Biden for his support of this bill (“The Twenty Year Argument Between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren Over Bankruptcy, Explained”)

In “’Lock the S.O.B.s Up: Joe Biden and the Era of Mass Incarceration,” The New York Times documents his decades-long support of tough on criminals legislation, culminating in the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This bill, signed into law by President Clinton, has been blamed for the jailing of high numbers of African Americans and other minorities, in particular.

Unlike the Republicans whose goal is to increase inequality by lowering taxes on the wealthy, at least the Democrats seem sincere about reducing it. To do this, they have fallen all over themselves to offer free college tuition and to reduce student loan debt. Sen. Bernie Sanders recently proposed to eliminate all student loans entirely.

Why have Democrats focused on college as a means of solving economic inequality? Statistics have shown that in general the more education you have, the higher your lifetime earnings will be. For example, men with bachelor’s degrees earn nearly a million more dollars in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates.

So are the Democrats right to try and solve the equality problem by making college more affordable, with tuition perhaps free? Or are these proposals simply the current version of the Herbert Hoover’s 1928 Presidential campaign where he literally offered voters “A chicken for every pot.”

But before we go spending trillions of dollars on college tuition and eliminating student debt, shouldn’t we ask: What has been driving up the cost of attending college over the past few decades leading to the current lack of affordable college options?

In his run for re-election as Vice President in 2012, Joe Biden made clear that he blamed college professors’ high salaries for the skyrocketing costs of tuition. This was an astonishing charge, especially given that his wife has long been a college professor. He was immediately admonished by faculty groups around the country. “Faculty Groups Try to Educate Biden on Salaries”.

John Curtis, former Director of Research for the American Association of University Professors, wrote a rebuttal to Biden on January 18, 2012. He took issue with Biden’s claim, pointing out that full-time faculty salaries have been stagnant for a number of years. He noted that tuition rates, in contrast, had risen “between three and fourteen times as fast as full-time faculty salaries.” (underlining added)

Curtis also cites “Trends in College Spending 1998-2008 by the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability,” which documented decreased spending on college teaching in favor of administration even before the Great Recession and wrote, “The common myth that spending on faculty is responsible for continuing cost escalation is not true.”

As Curtis notes, full-time salaries are only one part of the faculty salary picture. Curtis’ own research for the AAUP (published as an appendix to my Equality for Contingent Faculty documents that only twenty-five percent of professors now teach on the tenure-track, and only sixteen percent have tenure. Seventy-five percent of all college professors, one million in total, teach off the tenure-track, with fifty percent of all professors teaching part-time.

While “free trade” agreements encouraged the closing of American factories and the loss of millions of American jobs, colleges and universities instituted their own brand of wage theft called by adjunct Ron Swift “inside-outsourcing.” Even though the number of students was increasing, the colleges staunched the number of well-paid, secure, full-time tenure-track positions. They met rising enrollments by staffing classrooms with “contingent” faculty who teach off the tenure-track without the protections for free speech afforded their tenured brothers and sisters.

The colleges save money by refusing to pay these contingent professors a living wage, in flagrant violation of the principle of equal pay for equal work. They are paid on a completely separate and lower pay scale than their full-time counterparts are paid for teaching the very same courses; they are paid on average only about fifty percent of what a full-timer would earn for teaching the same number of courses. See my “The Wal-Martization of Higher Education: How Young Professors Are Getting Screwed”).

In other words, though women are still paid only 82% percent of what men earn for doing the same work, with black men earning only 73% and Hispanics only 69%, most adjunct professors are paid at most 50% of what tenure-track faculty earn for teaching the same course.

Though possessing Master’s and Doctorates and tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, these college professors are not being paid for all of the hours they work outside of class preparing lectures, grading tests, and meeting with students. They often do not even have offices. Their work schedule is capped below full-time so they will not qualify for tenure. Their work varies from quarter to quarter and they are often denied unemployment when they are in fact unemployed. The adjuncts and other contingent professors usually do not have any health insurance or retirement benefits

In “The Ph.D. Now Comes with Food Stamps,” the Chronicle of Higher Education has documented hundreds of thousands of people with graduate degrees receiving some form of public assistance, many of them contingent faculty.

The treatment between the two tiers is so disparate that I have called it “faculty apartheid” because the tenure-track few control and dominate the contingent many. Indeed, the tenured faculty often serve as the direct supervisors of the contingents. I have called the kind of discrimination that exists in higher education “tenurism,” the baseless but widespread stereotype that the tenured faculty are superior and warrant higher pay and better treatment and than the non-tenure-track faculty. (see my “Against Tenurism”).

In an interview with Shankar Vedantam on the NPR show “The Hidden Brain,” Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist who has done research on inequality in education, says the best solution is to have “the best teachers in American classrooms.”

But we are far from that solution, with the majority of the U.S. higher education teaching force earning much less than the vaunted $15 an hour minimum wage recommended by nearly all of the Democratic candidates. These contingent faculty are “apprentices to nowhere” with little realistic hope of escaping the academic ghetto as the contingents far outnumber the dwindling number of tenure-track professors.

But don’t’ the Democrats have a tight relation with the faculty unions (American Association of University Professors, American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association)? Yes, they do. But the unions themselves have collectively bargained the contingents into poverty and income insecurity. The two-tier system exists within the unions too, which have long been run by and for the tenure-track faculty; these unions clearly have not apprised the Democrats of these inequalities, let alone insist they solve them.

Will the Democrats insist that these unions, upon whom they are so dependent for money and campaign workers, treat all of their members equally? Or will they continue to look the other way in order to keep union money flowing into their campaign coffers.

Will the Democrats insist that these colleges, upon whom they wish to build an equal society, treat their professors equally and offer them the same opportunities for a better life that they are offering their students?

If politicians are going to solve a problem, they must first have a clear diagnosis before offering a treatment. Before the Democrats spend tax money on free tuition and paying off student loans, they need to acknowledge the income disparity among the professoriate and make solving it an equal priority.

Keith Hoeller is the co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association and editor of Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt University Press).


Keith Hoeller is the co-founder (with Teresa Knudsen) of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association and Editor, Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt, 2014).