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Friday, February 22, 2019

Friday, February 22, 2019
By Trevor Griffey, PhD; Lecturer,
Labor Studies & U.S. History, UCLA and CSUDH; trevorgriffey@gmail.com.
Photo Credit: Felicia Mello

Gavin Newsom, the new Governor of California, is the biggest supporter of public higher education to hold that office in the past 15 years. He served on the California State University (CSU) Board of Trustees and UC Board of Regents from 2010-18. He is taking office at a moment when it is fairly easy for him to show his support for higher education. California has a projected $21.5 billion budget surplus (and roughly $15 billion in reserves) for 2019-20.

In what he called his “California For All” budget for 2019-20, Newsom has proposed adding an additional $1.4 billion to California’s public higher education system: $400 million largely to make community college free, $562 million increase in revenue for the CSUs ($300 million of which is ongoing), a $240 million funding increase for the UC system (plus an additional $130 million for deferred maintenance), funding for legal services to support undocumented students, and more.

With this large new investment in higher education, Newsom’s budget proposal said that that he was trying “to increase access to higher education, improve student success and timely degree completion, and to better ensure that college remains affordable by freezing tuition at current levels.”

And yet, despite the commitment of over a billion dollars of new revenue to the U.S.’s largest community college and public university system, little of that money is likely to go where it is most needed: to reducing class sizes for introductory college courses, and to replacing poorly-paid temp job for college instructors with professional positions at living wages.

The reason is simple, and ideological: today’s higher education administrators— in California and around the U.S.— are committed to a version of what they call “student success” that marginalizes questions of class size, teaching load, and the working conditions of faculty from their definition of success. For them, student success means reducing the number of students who do not receive credit for and thus have to retake college courses, increasing the percentage of students who earn a degree, and reducing the time it takes for students to complete their studies. To achieve these changes, administrators hire education statistics gurus to track students, and bring in counselors and tutors to move students along “guided pathways” toward a degree. Learning is measured by the percentage of students who receive Cs or higher in their classes, because the accumulation of credits toward a degree is what matters most. Success is defined by graphs showing upward progress on certain key metrics, especially “time to degree.”

All levels of California’s public higher education system reflect this thinking. In 2010, the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at CSU Sacramento issued a report called “Divided We Fail.”  It found that 70% of all students who enrolled in California’s community colleges did not receive a degree within six years. In response, the California Community College system formed a Student Success Task Force, which issued a 77-page report in 2012 that put forward eight recommendations for increasing retention and graduation rates. None included suggestions for improving students’ teaching and learning environment.

Instead, the report defined student success as “Percentage of community college students completing their educational goals; Percentage of community college students earning a certificate or degree, transferring, or achieving transfer-readiness; Number of students transferring to a four-year Institution; [and] Number of degrees and certificates earned.”

Increasing undergraduate students’ retention and graduation rates is a worthwhile goal, since students who accumulate college debt and do not receive degrees are generally worse off than students who did not enroll in college at all, at least from a financial perspective. The problem is that this "get a C" vision of student success sidelines what students learn, or how they learn. In many schools’ strategic plans and student success initiatives, discussions of teaching quality are entirely absent.

When teaching and learning is included in student success initiatives and university strategic plans, it is often to promote the latest inquiry-based pedagogical strategies, grouped under the label “active learning.” Active learning is also a worthwhile project for colleges to support. But does it really mean merely introducing technological gadgets like iClickers to a classroom? If not, active learning requires reducing class size to facilitate student-led exercises and regular feedback from faculty.

Active learning can also mean showcase courses rather than widespread availability. This then leads to the celebration of a few small classes because they are “active” and not because they are small. By hailing what is old (teaching) as something new (innovation), administrators distract the public from  the fact that most of their curriculum is taught by underpaid, overworked faculty in classes that are far too large to support those students, particularly those most at risk of failing or dropping out.

California’s Community Colleges 

I have personally witnessed this framing of student success as something to be achieved by administrators and staff, and not by teachers or teaching, while serving as a member of the “Student Success Committee” at Long Beach City College, and as a lecturer in U.S. History and Labor Studies at CSU Dominguez Hills.

When I taught U.S. History at Long Beach City College in the Fall of 2017, I was one of 687 part-time lecturers at the school. We made up 43 percent of all employees at the school, and 68 percent of all faculty. We taught 43 percent of all courses, and we earned approximately $3,000 per 15-week course. Capped by state law at 3 courses per semester (a full-time teaching load is considered to be 5 courses per semester), the average lecturer at LBCC earned less than $13,000 per year, was ineligible for health benefits, and had almost no job security.

From what I’ve gleaned from various surveys of lecturers across the country, and also from informal conversations with colleagues at both LBCC and schools in the CSU system, there are a few major survival strategies for those who are paid so poorly to teach college courses:
  • work outside of higher education full-time, and treat community college teaching as a side gig for extra income; 
  • teach 7-10 courses per semester spread across at least three schools (usually other community colleges, sometimes also CSUs) to get around the cap on 3 courses per school; 
  • rely on a spouse’s income, sometimes while taking care of small children at home; 
  • or do this work while taking out loans as a graduate student (usually at a local University of California campus, but sometimes from a CSU campus).
Every one of these adjunct strategies for surviving poverty wages limit the amount of time that they have to spend on any given student.

This problem is exacerbated by how adjuncts in California’s community colleges are paid. Adjuncts are not salaried employees, but rather are classified as hourly employees who are only paid for the time they spend in the classroom (3 hours per 3 credit course per week). This sends adjuncts a very clear signal that they are not paid to prepare class lesson plans or course syllabi, to meet with students outside of class, to respond to student emails, or to grade student work. And if they’re not paid to do any of these things, then what incentive do adjuncts have to give students assignments that they will have to spend time grading, let alone teach students how to write?

Horror stories emerge from working conditions like these. At one CSU school, I met someone who taught 5 courses per semester while sometimes teaching additional courses at LBCC and other local colleges to make ends meet. This meant solo teaching of 200-400 students per semester across multiple schools, and in one case as many as 600 students in a semester. How could one person possibly do this? Her method was to administer online multiple choice tests produced by textbook publishers so that she didn’t actually have to read or evaluate student work at all.

This is just an extreme form of a more general problem: the reliance of many if not most community college faculty on easy-to-grade multiple choice tests and worksheets, instead of deeper and more transformative work teaching students how to read and write papers.

Another colleague of mine who teaches at a community college in Orange County told me that she knew multiple instructors at her school who also worked on the side for web sites used by college students to pay someone to write their papers for them. In other words: these community college teachers were paid so poorly, and felt so demoralized, that they got into the business of helping college students cheat by writing their papers for them.

Because LBCC lecturers are represented by a union, and the union bargained to be included in campus governance and receive payment for service, I volunteered to serve on a committee to supplement my income while teaching at LBCC.  That I was assigned to the campus “student success committee” was just an effect of my teaching schedule, and not because I knew what student success was. What I learned was that on average, more than 30 percent of LBCC students do not complete the courses they enroll in, and completion rates for African American, Asian American and Latino/a students tend to be lower than those of white students. And yet despite the school’s “integrated plan” celebrating its embrace of “flipped classrooms, bootcamps, compressed classes, and integrated wrap around services such as counseling and study skills” to increase equity and completion rates, at no point did members of the student success committee discuss the possibility that perhaps paying its faculty poverty level wages was NOT a recipe for “student success.”

Instead, the meetings were organized around fast-paced presentations of student completion rates and strategic plan goals, combined with reports from other committees, with the actual committee’s work not always easy for me to discern. I never raised my concerns about low teacher pay and demoralizing working conditions in committee meetings, partly because I was new and still learning, and also because I ended up leaving the school after one semester after deciding that I could not justify teaching for so little money.

LBCC is hardly unique in California’s 114-campus community college system. More than two thirds of California’s 60,636 public community college instructors were part-time lecturers in Fall of 2017. That semester, they taught 46 percent of all community college courses to almost 1.6 million students. And, according to my calculations, their average salary was just over $13,000 per year at each institution.

That same semester, only 62 percent of students enrolled in California’s community colleges passed basic skills courses, and only 72 percent passed courses for credit— with numbers far worse for students enrolled in online programs (or “distance learning”).   As a result, though there has been substantial improvement in the past decade, less than 50 percent of California community college students graduate or transfer to other schools within 6 years.

There appears to be a correlation between low teacher pay and poor student performance (page 5).  But for ideological reasons, California’s community college administrators don’t talk about this issue in relation to student success initiatives. So the vast majority of the state’s community college faculty continue to be told that there is no money for living wages, while their schools increase spending to hire more administrators, data analysts, counselors and tutors--in the name of equity and justice.

The California State University System

The politics of student success in the California State University (CSU) system— the largest public university system in the U.S., with 430,000 undergraduates on 23 campuses— are similar and related to those at the state’s community colleges. People who work for the CSUs like to call it “the people’s university.” Because it is primarily a teaching rather than research university, and 95 percent of CSU students are from “in-state," its student demographics more closely reflect youth demographics in California more broadly: more than 50 percent of its undergraduates are people of color, forty percent are Latino/a, and one third are the first in their families to attend college.

Unlike the University of California, the CSUs have not relied upon enrolling out of state and international students to offset declining per capita support from state legislators. Instead, their response to the great recession has been to grow their way into fiscal health on the cheap. This involves consistently exceeding the state’s funding based on projected enrollment, and enrolling between 15,000 to 20,000 more students than even the CSUs plan for. Then first year student class sizes are pushed to the legal limit established by the local fire department (usually packing 60 in a room). And finally, the schools have raised individual undergraduate student tuition and “student success” fees to offset budget cuts.

Full Time Equivalent (FTE) Students

This strategy has produced extraordinary growth within the CSU system, with CSU Northridge, Fullerton, Long Beach and San Diego now enrolling more than 30,000 undergraduate students every year. Indeed, CSU Northridge now has more undergraduates than UC Berkeley, and is second in the state in undergraduate full-time equivalent enrollment only to UCLA.

Why enroll so many more students than planned for? One reason is because the CSUs are required as part of the California Master Plan to enroll the top 33% of high school graduates in California, and the number of eligible high school graduates and community college transfers has grown dramatically the past 15 years (though enrollment is expected to level off). Another reason is that most CSU campuses, unprepared for the spike in eligible applicants, had admissions policies that guaranteed access to either all eligible applicants or all eligible “local” applicants. This combination of demographic change and quasi-open admissions has produced chaos on CSU campuses across the state in the past few years.  Administrators have used the chaos to justify increased tuition and fees on students and reduced numbers of transfer students at over-enrolled (or “impacted”) campuses.

In the meantime, the CSU has aggressively lobbied the state legislature for more money, but have largely not channeled that money into teachers and teaching. Before the great recession, government funding for public higher education in California was based upon a “marginal cost” formula that presumed that a new tenure track professor will be hired with the addition of 19 new full-time equivalent students.  When the Brown administration tossed this formula out the window during the early 2010s, the CSU responded to the combination of budget cuts and growing enrollment pressures to hire the cheapest faculty possible.

So while the percentage of tenure track faculty in the CSUs grew a modest 7.4 percent between 2010 and 2017, the percentage of part-time lecturers grew an immodest 41.8 percent. For the first time in CSU history, tenure density has dropped below 40 percent, and at some campuses is essentially the same as at community colleges (which often provide their students with newer classrooms and smaller class sizes).

The effect of CSU’s growth strategy upon students is especially stark at one of the schools where I teach, CSU Dominguez Hills. CSUDH was built following the Watts rebellion to partly serve the nearby predominantly Black and Latino/a communities of Compton and South Central Los Angeles. As other Southern California CSU campuses began to turn eligible students away the last few years, CSUDH became a “backup school” for Southern California residents who wanted to live at or near home but could no longer get into CSU Long Beach, Northridge, Fullerton, or Los Angeles. In the past two years, CSUDH’s undergraduate population has grown 9 percent, and its first-time first year student population has grown 57 percent.

CSUDH epitomizes growth on the cheap. Despite 75 percent of incoming first year students needing remedial English or Math assistance, and 61 percent being the first in their families to attend college, they are thrown into 60-person introductory and general education (GE) courses taught mainly by adjunct faculty. Since 5 courses per semester is considered a normal full-time faculty workload, this pushes the number of students that many adjunct faculty teach above 200 students per semester. Unable to provide their students individualized attention, it is common for faculty to resort to assigning multiple-choice tests rather than more time-intensive assignments through which students can develop their reading and writing skills.

The warehousing of first year students is profitable. The tuition of just 6-7 of the students enrolled in a 60-person course covers the salary for their adjunct instructor (which hovers between $4-5,000 per course, or less than $50,000 per year if they have what is considered a full-time teaching workload). The other 90 percent of student tuition from these GE courses is siphoned off by the administration.

This system also reinforces racial inequality in our society.  The students admitted to CSUDH and then thrown into these large courses taught by overworked and underpaid adjuncts are being set up to fail. Approximately 25-40 percent of the students in the Introduction to U.S. History course, regardless of whether they’re taught by adjuncts or tenure track faculty, receive grades so low that they do not receive credit, even though they paid for the course and can’t get their money back.

Discouraged by these and similar experiences, more than 20 percent of first year students at CSUDH drop out after the first year. Less than half of full-time first year students are likely ever to earn a degree from the school. Student poverty and the challenges of balancing school with work and family play a role in these low retention rates. But I suspect that creating an alienating learning environment in which students are treated like numbers makes students rightly question the value of the education they’re receiving.  One overcrowded classroom after another encourages them to see college as every bit as oppressive and irrelevant as their high schools might have been for them.

CSUDH has some of the worst retention rates and time to degree rates in the CSUs, but the difference is of degree rather than kind. Roughly 40 percent of all first year students in the CSUs don’t get degrees within 6 years, thought that is an improvement over rates a few years prior.

Commitment to improving the teaching and learning environment of the CSUs varies widely across its nearly two dozen campuses, but in my opinion is largely lacking from the Chancellor’s office.  The CSUs have recently embraced their own form of “student success” planning, which they call “Graduation Initiative 2025,” to address high student fail and dropout rates. Though CSU research indicates a connection between tenure density and student success, and some CSU campus administrators have gone so far as to declare that “an engaged faculty is essential to student success,” the Chancellor’s office has decentralized the process of creating plans to increase student retention and graduation rates, and only seven of the CSU’s 23 campuses chose to make increasing tenure density a priority (pages 31-33).  CSUDH was not one of them.

The argument for increasing tenure density to promote student success is not an argument that adjunct faculty are bad teachers. It is an argument that they are overworked and underpaid teachers. It is an argument that in this system, the majority of teachers have few incentives other than charity to give their students the support they deserve. Though tenure track faculty at the CSUs are burdened with excessive teaching and service workloads compared to faculty at the UCs, and, depending on the campus, may also face severe class size issues, their higher pay and more permanent position can sometimes provide them with the ability to give their students more attention than lecturers who are teaching 200-300 students per semester while earning poverty wages.

But increasing tenure density is not a significant priority for the CSU Chancellor’s office. When the California Faculty Association, the union for CSU faculty, lobbied in 2018 for state revenue to increase tenure density, the Chancellor’s office opposed it on the grounds that they do not want the legislature telling them how to spend their money.

When the CSU lost, and the legislature gave the CSUs $25 million that could only be used to increase tenure density, the Chancellor put the money into its graduation initiative funds, and distributed the money equally across its 23 campuses even though most campuses’ graduation initiatives did not include plans to increase tenure density.

This is what happens when teaching is seen as peripheral to student success. It leaves faculty struggling in their off hours to “follow the money” and fight just to be included in plans to improve undergraduate education.

Now that Governor Newsom has offered the CSUs hundreds of millions in new revenue, CSU Chancellor Tim White has announced that he anticipates that most of the new money that the CSU receives will go toward increasing enrollment and reducing the time to graduation for students. Neither goal is bad per se.

But so long as the CSU depends on a growth model of continuing to hire low-wage temps for faculty to teach first year students, then steering students’ tuition revenue and fees away from teachers and teaching into tracking and advising, it’s hard to believe that any of the CSU’s lofty goals for “student success” will amount to anything more than enrolling more students to pay more money for a lower quality education.

If we let that happen, then we as educators, and the people of California, will have failed our students.