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Opinion: The Colorado community-college system is built on exploitation of teachers

Juggling multiple jobs, adjunct faculty are the gig workers of higher education. They outnumber full faculty 4-1 but are paid less than half

For educators in the Colorado Community College System, the word “equity” is a familiar buzzword.  It’s an admirable goal, one we very much share.

The problem is that it can seem like empty rhetoric — or worse, a cynical marketing ploy— given actual labor practices within the 13 CCCS colleges.

Melinda Myrick and Mark DuCharme

The decidedly unequal status of faculty and instructors in the CCCS undermines its ability to deliver quality education, especially to the most at-risk student populations, belying the system’s claim of community college as a path toward student success.

For the CCCS to provide meaningful student equity and learning outcomes, the gross inequities within the system must be addressed first. The precarity and poverty wages of the majority of the faculty must be eliminated through a reprioritization of both money and values.

According to the latest report by the American Association of University Professors, there are 1,164 full-time faculty employed across all CCCS colleges. Their average salary is around $65,000, and they enjoy benefits and relative job security.

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In contrast, the CCCS employs 4,519 adjunct faculty, referred to as “instructors.” They are not salaried, but paid per class, earning an average of just $25,000 per year.

CCCS instructors hold the same degrees as their peers. They teach the same courses. Yet instructors are denied full-time status, regardless of how many classes they teach, are denied a living wage and benefits, and have no job security.

This amounts to unequal pay for equal work. The price is paid by students as well as beleaguered, overworked instructors.

When asked to explain why they cannot increase instructor pay, college and university presidents often blame the state General Assembly, though only a small percentage of system funding comes from the state. In fact, in many years, CCCS revenue exceeds expenses by $20 million.

The problem is less about state funding and more about how the money is spent. According to  research by the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, the CCCS in 2013 spent only 27.7% on salary and benefits for all faculty, and this trend continues.

What presidents leave out of their calculus is administrative bloat, the financial shift away from classroom instruction and toward management. This has steadily increased since the 1980s, when colleges employed more faculty than administrators. Today, administrators outnumber faculty.

A recent AAUP report confirms the number of full-time faculty has decreased nationwide at 61.5% of institutions, as the number of upper-level administrators grew. Currently, the 13 colleges of the CCCS employ 64 presidents, vice presidents, and their staff, even though some of the campuses are the size of local high schools. A 2021 Colorado Open Records Act request revealed the combined salaries and benefits for CCCS executives now cost taxpayers nearly $40,000 per weekday, or $10 million a year.

Yet on Feb. 25, 2020, when CCCS instructors and AAUP representatives met with Chancellor Joe Garcia at the FRCC Westminster campus after a year of negotiating a proposal to improve adjunct faculty pay and working conditions for all CCCS faculty, he told us, “a living wage is a number we can’t get to.” 

The unchecked rise of administrators comes not only at the expense of adjuncts, but the students the CCCS claims to champion. The duplicitous equity messaging flies in the face of the single most important factor in determining student success: teachers. This is especially true for community college instructors, who assume the responsibilities of counselors, advisors, and developmental educators far more than our counterparts at four-year institutions, where research is prioritized over teaching.

Most students don’t know the very teachers tasked with delivering the promise of equity do not have it themselves. They are the gig workers of higher education, racing from campus to campus using their cars as offices and lunchrooms. Rather than fostering rich interactions between faculty and students, precarity undermines the help students need to successfully integrate into their campus communities.

Instead, overreliance on exploited labor has only encouraged instructors to leave.

The CCCS is built on a lie.  It paints itself as an engine of progress, empowering underserved, economically marginalized communities, but in fact its entire business model is based on the exploitation of teachers.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

You can’t ask people who work retail jobs to subsidize their teaching income to lift students out of retail work and offer them a rosy future. You can’t ask people going to food banks because they can’t afford to buy groceries to inspire students to reach for the stars. Chancellor Garcia and his top-level administrators know this, yet choose to do nothing while earning six-figure incomes themselves.

Instructors are not the only ones who are hurt. Students dealing with their own financial precarity need teachers to be there for them, yet how can instructors do that when they are juggling multiple classes at multiple institutions, multiple jobs, with limited resources?

If the CCCS is serious about equity and serving the needs of its student population, it will invest in those who can have the most impact: adjuncts who teach the lion’s share of classes.  Anything short of that — anything short of offering instructors a living wage for the professional work they do — is a sick joke and a slap in the face to the people of Colorado.


Mark DuCharme, of Boulder, is an English instructor at Front Range Community College. Melinda Myrick, of Superior, is an English instructor and online writing center consultant at FRCC. They are co-presidents of the FRCC chapter of the American Association of University Professors.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggest writers or give feedback at opinion@coloradosun.com.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com


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