By Krista Eliot
The U.S. Department of Education has made a very important change to the application form for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, that just made the path to relief from student loan debt a little easier for many public service employees, including many adjunct faculty. Before this change, it was unclear whether employees working the equivalent of a full-time load at more than one part-time job could qualify. However, in response to recent queries, the form has been revised, and now states that the applicant “may be employed part-time concurrently by more than one eligible public service organization and meet the full-time requirement”.
For those unfamiliar with this program, here’s how it works: employees of eligible public service organizations who have high student loan debt relative to their income can enroll in this program and receive some debt relief from eligible loans. Participants need to make 120 on-time payments in an eligible repayment plan while employed full-time in public service–after which, the remainder of their debt is forgiven.
This is potentially great news for many workers, including me. I am one of more than one million contingent faculty who teach half of the courses offered on college campuses in the United States today. Although I love my job (as an anthropology instructor at a couple of community colleges in the San Diego area), my family’s financial prospects if I continue on this career path look daunting. There are very few full-time teaching positions to apply for, the vast majority of job openings in my field are part-time, low-paying, “adjunct instructor” positions, which typically offer no job security and few benefits. If I want to continue teaching, I am most likely looking at working as an adjunct for a number of years, and quite possibly for my entire career. Community colleges in San Diego County typically pay $3,000-$4,000 per course, which means that I can expect to make approximately $35,000 per year if I teach the equivalent of a full-time course load. My husband is an adjunct, too, and we have a combined student loan debt of approximately $140,000. Without access to debt relief from student loans, staying on our current career trajectories would mean severely compromising our ability to save for retirement or for sending our son to college one day–never mind dreaming of owning a home.
Although this clarification from the Department of Education is welcome news, there are still a number of obstacles that contingent faculty may face in trying to enroll in the PSLF program. For one thing, the application and annual recertification process is cumbersome, requiring each individual employer to sign off on paperwork. In addition, adjuncts typically have fluctuating workloads from one semester to the next, depending on the needs of the employer, which could make it difficult to maintain the full-time level of employment required.
Finally, given the way that many colleges document our workloads, instructors like me may not be able to meet the definition of “full-time employment” as defined by the PSLF program (an average of at least 30 hours per week) even if we are, in fact, working the equivalent of a full-time load. This is because many colleges pay us per instructional hour. For example, at one of my colleges I am teaching one course this semester that meets for three hours per week. So on paper, I work there for three hours per week. But this does not include the many hours I spend preparing my lessons, grading student work, reading and answering emails, or meeting with students. In fact, even if I increase my teaching load and take on three courses at each of the two colleges where I work next semester (equivalent to 120% of a full time teaching load, and easily 50+ hours per week of actual work), I will only be paid for–and documented as working–a total of about 22 hours per week. That’s far short of the 30 hour minimum that I would need to qualify
But here is another recent development that seems promising: back in February, the IRS and the Department of the Treasury explicitly addressed the issue of how to calculate adjuncts’ hours, for the purposes of compliance with the Affordable Care Act. They have determined that for every instructional hour, adjuncts should be credited with an additional 1.25 hours for work done outside of the classroom. By this measure, my estimated hours per week is much closer to reality.
The Department of Education needs to adopt this same measure to estimate our actual work hours for the purposes of determining eligibility for the PSLF program. Furthermore, colleges need to pay us for preparation time and office hours. Not doing so constitutes wage theft for the required work that we are not being paid for. At a time when student loan debt has skyrocketed to $1.2 trillion, and there are few full-time positions in higher education, debt relief from student loans and fair pay for part-time teaching assignments have never been more critical issues for contingent faculty.
You can follow Krista Eliot on twitter at @KristaEliot