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When you think about low-wage workers, college professors probably don't come to mind. But these days, many are barely making ends meet. That's because 76 percent of all college instructors, over a million of them, teach part-time. Schools save money when they replace full-time, tenured faculty with itinerant teachers, better known as adjuncts. And a congressional report out today says that shift has created lots of tension on campus where adjuncts are treated like cheap labor.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Kathleen Gallagher is a published poet and writer with advanced studies and a masters degree. But after 20 years as an adjunct English professor at several colleges in Akron, Ohio, the most she's ever made in a year is $21,000; last year, $17,000. After one college laid her off last summer, Gallagher was desperately short of money so she sold her plasma.

KATHLEEN GALLAGHER: It is embarrassing to talk on the radio and say: I think I'll have to go give some blood, you know, and - but I needed gasoline.

SANCHEZ: She thought about doing something else for a living.

GALLAGHER: But I mean I have applied for other work. You know, and I had interviews but then I remembered what I feel like in the classroom.

SANCHEZ: Gallagher tears up. Teaching is her life, her calling, she says. She's always assumed that eventually a college somewhere would offer her a full-time professorship, but that just doesn't happen as often anymore. For good reason, says Rex Ramsier, vice provost at the University of Akron, where Gallagher is teaching one class.

REX RAMSIER: Institutions have be very mindful that if we simply tried to staff every course with full-time faculty that have full benefits, the cost of higher education at any institution would go up 30 or 40 percent potentially. And the public is not going to accept that.

SANCHEZ: Over half the faculty at the University of Akron teaches part-time. Ramsier says he's sorry to hear that some adjuncts are struggling but they know or should know what they're getting into.

RAMSIER: Part-time work is truly part-time work. We're not trying to take advantage of people.

SANCHEZ: Since the mid 1970s, when two and four year colleges started replacing full-time faculty with part-time instructors, disputes over pay, benefits and working conditions have ballooned into big problems on many campuses.

Adrianna Kezar, a professor at the University of Southern California, is an expert on workforce issues in higher education. She says, initially, part-time teachers were popular because they brought real world experience to the classroom. Today...

ADRIANNA KEZAR: Higher education has begun to adopt corporate management practices and corporations move to more contingent labor, because it is a cheaper form of labor.

SANCHEZ: Cheaper, yes, although it depends on the institution's size, whether it's public or private. So a full-time professor's salary can average from $72,000 a year up to $160,000. Adjuncts average $25- to $27,000 a year and often much less, regardless of where they teach.

At Cuyahoga Community College, just outside Cleveland, three out of four faculty members are adjuncts. David Wilder is typical. Now in his late 50's, he has a degree in library sciences and has taught art history at Cuyahoga for 10 years, 15 years at another school. But he lives paycheck to paycheck and moonlights in the deli of a nearby hotel. Minimum wage workers, that's all we are he says.

DAVID WILDER: We're just part of working people starting to step forward. We identify with the fast-food workers that are telling their stories and we want to do the same.

SANCHEZ: Some adjuncts here are on food stamps. Others struggle to make their car or rent payments. Wilder and a few colleagues today have set up a table in the student union to share their stories.

MARIA MAISTO: We have to stop hiding in the shadows. We have to not be ashamed to tell our stories.

SANCHEZ: Maria Maisto is also an adjunct at Cuyahoga and president of the New Faculty Majority, a national support group that's been lobbying for more pay, health insurance, job security and better working conditions. Maisto says adjuncts here get about $8 an hour.

A tall, gangly man approaches Maisto, pecks at the calculator on his smartphone, and says Maisto's figures are wrong.

RUDY STRALKA: Adjuncts don't make $8 an hour. Adjuncts make about $22, $23 an hour.

SANCHEZ: Rudy Stralka is a well-regarded, full-time, tenured business professor at Cuyahoga. He says if you do the math, adjuncts are paid fairly, $160 per class in Maisto's case.

STRALKA: That class meets one day a week, two days a week.

MAISTO: Two days a week.

STRALKA: How many hours are you in class?

MAISTO: I only teach one class so three hours a week.

STRALKA: So $26 an hour. OK.

SANCHEZ: Not if you count the extra hours outside the classroom that adjuncts are not paid, says Maisto. Preparing for class, grading papers, advising students, part-time professors absolutely get no more than $8 an hour, she says. Stralka isn't convinced, but even if adjuncts are right, he says their message is falling on deaf ears.

STRALKA: If you really want to do something, you have to get the petitions out and you've got to change the law. You have to get organized otherwise this is an exercise in futility.

SANCHEZ: Maisto and her colleagues disagree. They say they've never been more organized. Nationally, about 22 percent of part-time professors belong to a union. But in the last few years there's been a spike in the number of colleges and universities that have recognized adjuncts' collective bargaining rights.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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