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Felicia Brown teaches a first-year course on sociology and ethics on Feb. 8, 2023. Brown, an adjunct professor, has been teaching at the Community College of Denver since 2019. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

With about $50,000 in student loan debt and an income that has barely helped her stay ahead of interest with her payments, Felicia Brown is relying on credit cards to make ends meet and often must decide how to stretch the little money she has. Those decisions always come with impossible sacrifices.

Does she prioritize car maintenance when her 11-year-old Honda Civic needs new tires so that she doesn’t slip and slide on icy roads? Or should she take care of her health and get a dental cleaning? What happens when she needs new glasses?

Brown, an adjunct professor at the Community College of Denver and Arapahoe Community College, never thought she would have to ask herself those kinds of questions after she graduated college about 10 years ago.

“I really believed that education was going to set me free in that way, and I still feel stunted,” she said.

Brown, 35, works what most would consider full time as she teaches four classes across the two community colleges. But for her and other adjunct professors across the state, their employment status and their pay reflect only the hours they spend in front of their students. That means that all the extra hours of grading, lesson planning, working with students one on one and monitoring online discussion boards don’t count toward their compensation.

And without full-time status recognized by their employers, adjunct professors in Colorado don’t qualify for federal student loan forgiveness — strapping them with a burden of debt while in many cases they also earn too little to cover basic expenses. Colorado Democrats want to help ease adjunct instructors’ financial stress with legislation that would make them eligible for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness by recalculating the number of hours they are credited with working.

Senate Bill 84, introduced Tuesday, would give adjunct professors across Colorado community colleges and public universities full-time employment status, solely for the purpose of federal student loan forgiveness. The program requires public workers to clock at least 30 hours per week for eight months each year. Adjuncts still would not be able to secure other benefits that come with full-time employment, such as health insurance, but those who have worked at least 10 years for a public institution would be able to qualify for loan forgiveness. The legislature would direct schools to recognize adjunct professors as full-time employees through what is called a “multiplier.” The finance tool would multiply the number of hours an educator teaches by 4.35. So if an adjunct works three three-hour classes, using the multiplier, they would be considered full time.

“I just think that we pay our educators now for the time that they spend only during lecture, and it’s kind of with blinders on regarding all of the other things that they do,” said bill sponsor Sen. Janice Marchman, a Loveland Democrat.

Sen. Janice Marchman of Colorado’s Senate District 15 previously taught sixth and seventh grade math at Erwin Middle School. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The legislation, which was cleared by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday and now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, is the latest cry for help for higher education adjuncts, who in recent years have raised concerns over their livelihood. Last year, faculty at Colorado public universities and colleges pleaded with state lawmakers to pass collective bargaining legislation so that they could unionize and negotiate for wages, benefits and working conditions. Collective bargaining legislation that ultimately passed was much narrower than initial legislation and did not include higher education employees.

The proposal also comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is slated to begin hearing oral arguments over President Joe Biden’s plan to wipe out up to $20,000 of student loan debt for tens of millions of people at the end of the month. Biden last August announced his student loan forgiveness plan, which sparked lawsuits by Republicans. In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Education has paused repayments.

The federal government has also adopted its own multiplier of 3.35 for adjunct faculty that will go into effect in July. 

Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, believes adjuncts in Colorado should take advantage of the federal government’s pathway to loan forgiveness.

Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen delivers opening day remarks at the Capitol, Jan. 9, 2023, in Denver. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Lundeen said he is “uncomfortable” with the bill.

“I have serious questions about it at the very least,” he said. “In a way, it’s the state seeking to seize control of the federal government’s pursestrings and loosen those pursestrings up,” he said. “And I don’t know that that’s an appropriate thing for state government to do.”

He added that any time debt forgiveness is offered, “it’s coming out of somebody else’s pocket.”

“Is it appropriate to take money out of Peter’s pocket to put it in Paul’s pocket?” Lundeen asked.

Marchman said she is excited that the federal government is putting its own multiplier in place for adjuncts but noted that it is “not enough to actually account for the hours that adjunct professors have worked.”

“It’s a good step in the right direction,” Marchman said, “but it didn’t quite go far enough.”

Cobbling together teaching positions across colleges and universities

Community colleges and universities hire adjunct instructors as contract workers who teach a course or set of courses on a per course basis, said Kim Poast, chief student success and academic affairs officer at the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Adjunct instructors typically don’t receive the same employment benefits that full-time professors get, so they are cost effective for schools, Poast said. Colleges and universities tend to hire them when programs have lower enrollment and a school can’t justify employing a full-time faculty member. She compares adjuncts to gig economy workers and other contract workers paid for a project.

“It’s very similar to just a regular contract employee,” Poast said. “You’re paid for the scope of the entire set of work and the scope of work includes you’ve done your curriculum, you’ve developed your syllabus, you’ve put your course together. It’s inclusive of the course from start to finish.”

But there are serious tradeoffs for adjuncts and “inequities in that system,” she said.

“While you gain flexibility in some areas, you’re also losing some of the same benefits that regular full-time employees have,” Poast said, noting that adjunct professors do the same work as full-time professors when it comes to teaching courses. Adjuncts, however, are not required to serve on committees or evaluate dissertations like full-time professors must do, but many still shoulder extra responsibilities outside class, like helping students individually.

Poast, who is an adjunct instructor at the University of Colorado Denver, said she sees many adjunct faculty string together a career with as many courses as they can manage.

“You cobble something together that is going to make you as whole as possible,” she said.

Pay for adjunct professors varies widely among higher education institutions, Poast said, with university adjuncts tending to make a little more money than their community college counterparts because the level of instruction is more advanced. Pay also varies between courses in bachelor’s programs, master’s programs and doctoral programs.

Adjuncts are typically compensated based on the number of credits their course is, with a set amount paid per credit, Poast said. For the class she co-teaches at CU Denver — a higher education policy and governance class for graduate students in the School of Education and Human Development — she splits $4,500 with the other instructor. 

Brown, the adjunct carrying about $50,000 in student loans, earns $2,649 for a regular three-credit hour class for the whole semester at the Community College of Denver.

CDHE does not track how many adjunct professors work statewide, but the legislation estimates about 8,500 adjunct professors teach at public institutions across Colorado. Many institutions’ teaching staff is composed largely of adjuncts. At Front Range Community College, for instance, 75% of faculty are adjunct professors while at Aims Community College, 80% of teaching staff are adjuncts.

Marchman said the legislation won’t cost the state anything. However, community colleges and universities will have to figure out how to recalibrate adjuncts’ hours using the multiplier and create documentation showing that an adjunct instructor qualifies for federal student loan forgiveness and absorb any related costs.

Marchman wants Colorado adjuncts to benefit from the same loan forgiveness that adjuncts in other states, such as Oregon, do after putting their own multipliers in place, especially when she has repeatedly heard that the current system is not working for instructors who are not on a tenure track.

“I don’t believe we’re paying them enough, especially when so much of our system of higher (education) is built on adjunct professors, part-time professors,” Marchman said.

“The indentured servants of the academic world”

Some adjunct professors in the state have had to turn to food banks or picked up a second job in the constant battle to support themselves, said Kallie Leyba, executive director of AFT Colorado, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. The American Association of University Professors, which includes adjuncts and part-time instructors, is part of the union, which is advocating for adjuncts to qualify for federal student loan forgiveness.

“They’re unable to live the life that we all imagine an adult in America should live where we own a home or we rent a home and we have our dog and our kids and our picket fence,” Leyba said. “That’s just not the reality for some of these adjuncts because they are renting a room in a colleague’s house.”

And some have left their campus jobs altogether.

“That ends up hurting our entire state of Colorado because we lose good people and we don’t have that consistency from year to year within our schools,” Leyba said.

Felicia Brown teaches a first-year course on sociology and ethics on Feb. 8, 2023. Brown, an adjunct professor, has been teaching at the Community College of Denver since 2019. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Brown, who has questioned whether she can afford to keep teaching as an adjunct, found herself on a path to teaching community college students so that they could have the kind of person she needed while growing up in a mostly white southern Tennessee town: a person of color who could be a role model.

“I saw education as a way out of the area that I lived in, and I was hoping that I could be the first,” Brown, who is Latina and white, said. “I just thought, well, it was kind of demoralizing to not see anyone that looked like me.”

She attended Middle Tennessee State University, where she earned a bachelor of arts for sociology and a bachelor of science for sociology and a women in gender studies certificate. She went on to complete a master’s degree in sociology.

Brown was drawn to teaching at community colleges and specifically the Community College and Denver so that, as a first-generation college graduate, she could work with Hispanic students. 

She did everything she was told to: She graduated from college. She benefited from scholarships. She studied intently. She published research for her thesis. And yet, still, Brown hasn’t achieved the kind of financial security she was led to believe would be within reach.

“I’m basically relying on the benefits of other people who know and have seen me through this whole process of doing everything that the American dream tells you to do,” she said.

Brown currently lives in Lakewood in a three-bedroom apartment with her partner, who pays for her health insurance, and a roommate. Sharing housing and leaning on others for food and other essentials is the only way she has been able to stay afloat. She has also racked up about $9,000 in credit card debt while trying to pay for health expenses and care for her dog.

One major problem adjuncts face is the uncertainty and instability of course loads they are offered, Brown said. They might pick up a full load at multiple universities, only to have half of their classes dropped because of low enrollment or because students who would have been in their class get shuffled to a full-time professor whose class isn’t full.

“We’re the indentured servants of the academic world,” Brown said.

She currently teaches two sections of introduction to sociology combined with first-year experience, which is an orientation class, at the Community College of Denver. At Arapahoe Community College, she teaches two sociology courses. Brown knows she could make more if she was full time and if she taught at a university instead of a community college. Last year, she earned about $22,000, according to her tax returns, she said.

But if she doesn’t keep showing up for her students, “who will?” she asks. “Especially someone that looks like me.”

Felicia Brown teaches a first-year course on sociology and ethics on Feb. 8, 2023. Brown, an adjunct professor, has been teaching at the Community College of Denver since 2019. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

For now, Brown’s student loans are in forbearance, and she has temporarily stopped her monthly payments of almost $200. Qualifying for federal student loan forgiveness wouldn’t solve all her financial instability, but it would at very least free up more money each month so that she could stop turning to credit cards so much.

“That would reduce my stress significantly financially,” she said, “and probably build back a little more faith in my government supporting me for the work that they wanted me to do in the first place.”

It would also reinforce to her and adjunct instructors across Colorado that the state cares about the work they do inside and outside the classroom. 

“We are showing through where we place our money in a capitalist society what we value,” Brown said, “and if not teachers and education, then what are we doing?”

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Erica Breunlin

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