Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Adjunct Underclass

    How America's Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission



    This book note discusses two books:
    The Educated Underclass: Students and the Promise of Social Mobility by Gary Roth (Pluto Press, 2019); 
    The Adjunct Underclass: How America's Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission by Herb Childress (University of Chicago Press, 2019).

    A thorough examination of the word underclass and modern instantiations of the term could easily fill a semester-long "Introduction to Sociology" course. That this course would likely be taught by an adjunct faculty member and may not help its undergraduate students avoid a future of underemployment are two key points that Gary Roth and Herb Childress make in their slim, grim, but urgent books on two different, but related, underclasses in American higher education.

    According to Rolison (1991), the term underclass was first used by Myrdal (1963) in reference to "persons and families at the bottom of a society" whose exclusion from meaningful labor opportunities constrained their ability to benefit from the "liberty and equality of opportunity" (p. 289) available to other segments of the population through the educational system. This initial usage accurately signals both Roth's and Childress's interest on the relationship between unemployment and higher education, albeit for different groups. In Roth's The Educated Underclass, the "underclass" refers to the millions of underemployed college graduates (and, worse, nongraduates) who have been sold an education mobility dream but find themselves working minimum-wage jobs. In Childress's The Adjunct Underclass, the "underclass" is a more specific group--the adjunct instructors who find themselves at the bottom of the higher education totem pole, shut out from steady, well-paying career tracks. Counting these groups, documenting their plight, and parsing the social and structural forces that keep them in their respective bottom strata are key preoccupations and contributions of both texts. Taken together, Roth and Childress trace broad demographic, curricular, and funding shifts, as well as the maneuvers of those in the upper social strata to sabotage what has been the only reliable social mobility machine in American society. While the texts can feel alternately weighed down by gloom (Roth) or brittle with sarcasm (Childress), the authors' clear commitment to those on the bottom rungs of higher education make authorial tone less important than the moral call that resounds from both books: if we were to take Gandhi's suggestion and measure American higher education by how it treats its most vulnerable, it would certainly fall short of its champions' claims that it is the best in the world.

    Roth is a former vice chancellor and dean at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and from this vantage point he has observed striving college students from low-income backgrounds. In the introduction and conclusion, he points to a befuddling characteristic of higher education: for "limited numbers, education becomes the independent variable that accounts for their rise within the social hierarchy" (p. 3), but for the rest of the population, education acts as a barrier (alongside others) that inhibits mobility. In chapters 1 and 2, Roth outlines how the higher education funnel has widened over time but reliably sorts and stratifies students by income as they move through the pipeline. Low-income students attend college at lower rates than their higher-income peers, attend institutions with lower graduation rates, major in preprofessional areas like criminal justice with limited job openings, and struggle to pivot professionally due to debt repayment and underemployment in low-paying jobs. Roth shines in these chapters, revealing his professional and scholarly passion for disentangling income, education, class, and mobility. He adds underemployment statistics to often-cited unemployment figures, revealing a much grimmer picture than the one marketing majors, for example, were sold by their educational institutions. In this case, Roth cites Federal Reserve data to show that while only 3 percent of recently graduated marketing majors are unemployed, approximately 53 percent are underemployed. In chapters 3 and 4, he places our current relationship with class, capitalism, and stratification in perspective, underscoring that as income inequality has increased over time, only the uppermost classes have truly benefited. In chapters 5 and 6, he reminds readers that the uncertainty and precarity that defines contemporary society has roots in reversed government policy from the baby boomer era. Roth explains that while the boomers benefited from increased government spending and intervention in social programs to ensure a minimum standard of living, these same boomers (now in Congress) have moralized social welfare and redirected government spending and intervention into the business and financial sectors. On an individual level, the financial support that wealthy parents give to their children to cushion their way through college and into their first jobs further stratifies the experiences and outcomes of upper- and lower-class college students. Ultimately, Roth describes an economy with too few "good jobs" and an educated workforce that has too many credentials of little value. While Roth ends The Educated Underclass by describing how the underemployed find themselves trapped as they attempt to "separate false from real promises regarding the future" (p. 141), he does not offer the reader much in the way of solutions that might help these strivers or higher education practitioners orient themselves toward a more sustainable future.

    In The Adjunct Underclass, Childress takes readers into the hallways, parking lots, and closets of colleges and universities to show us what it looks like when the education sector relies on underpaid contingent labor. Like Roth, Childress points to fluctuating college enrollments and reduced state subsidies as key forces and argues that these shifts have resulted in tuition-reliant institutions where marketing takes a central role and instructors are "cost units" that can be added or cut depending on that year's enrollment figures. Childress opens by sharing stories of adjunct faculty, many of whom entered academia with the goal of becoming tenure-track faculty and are now barely cobbling together a living. He makes the case that contingent teaching is not fulfilling for instructors, nor does it meet students' needs in terms of instructional support, mentorship, or reliability. Childress then peels back the marketing brochures to reveal that non-tenure-track faculty are called many things across higher education, making their prevalence hard to spot. However, what marks them all (whether "lecturers" or "specialized," "visiting," or "part-time" faculty) is their contingency. He notes that contingency is the end product of a sum of structural forces and organizational decisions, and one reason contingency thrives is the many competing ideas about the purpose and goals of higher education. Childress then provides a concrete illustration of how a stratified system of higher education serves low-income students poorly. He describes how different tiers of institutions rely on adjuncts differently: elite liberal arts colleges employ very few, whereas at large public nonselective institutions, contingent faculty make up the majority of instructors. To his credit, Childress includes graduate students and postdocs in his analysis, as these students shoulder significant instructional weight for little pay as part of their "training" and therefore must be included in discussions of contingent underpaid instructors.

    In the back half of the book, Childress outlines the ways in which many of the decisions made to address organizational imperatives (increased student diversity, administrative complexity, shifts in governance) have both increased the reliance on contingent faculty and increased their institutional invisibility. This section rang especially true for me, as I thought of my mother, who recently retired after being an adjunct writing instructor for over twenty years at a state flagship institution. Despite having published books, mentored countless students, and received teaching awards, she never got used to working for an institution that wanted to pretend she didn't exist.

    This second half of The Adjunct Underclass, and especially the concluding chapter, is Childress at his best. Throughout the text his tone ranges from outraged to acerbic. And despite his penchant for animal metaphors (as an interdisciplinary doctoral candidate, I am a "mongrel" who will never be accepted as "part of any originating herd" (p. 58), and adjuncts are beached fish on the banks of the Great Lakes), he believes in and proposes deeply human solutions. In the final chapter, "What to Do?" he underscores the primary loser when contingency reins: relationships. He asserts that relationships are the foundation and core function of higher education and that without them learning, development, and equality are not possible. He outlines both a long-term principled vision for higher education and short-term suggestions for undergraduates, graduates, and parents. Childress attends to both vision and pragmatics, counters injustice with humanity, combines sarcasm with personal biography, and only places blame on those who do not have the courage to speak up for the most vulnerable among us.

    By reading The Adjunct Underclass and The Educated Underclass together, we see how the marginalization of both adjuncts and low-income college students is the result of similar social and structural processes. Both adjuncts and college students embark and persist on their journeys inspired by the most resonant myth in America--that education and hard work are enough to yield a good life. The myth of meritocracy resonates, because for some of us it comes true. As Roth explains, education remains the most powerful mechanism for social mobility. And yet, because our education system is deeply stratified and parental income determines access to high-quality education, those who begin at the bottom are overwhelmingly likely to stay there. For low-income, first-generation college students, this means attending lower-cost, less-selective schools with limited resources, taking classes from a high proportion of contingent faculty, and experiencing unrelenting barriers to graduation. For the resilient and lucky low-income students who earn their bachelor's degrees, too few "good jobs" in their fields await them. Like adjunct positions, the vast majority of jobs available in our contemporary society pay low wages and do not provide the security or support to navigate life events like childbirth, let alone unexpected financial or health emergencies. These low-wage jobs are abundant due to a capitalist economy that values profit over human dignity and governmental policy that protects corporations more effectively than the working poor.

    While bold policy changes are required to change the highly unequal economy and social system that Roth outlines in The Educated Underclass, Childress reminds us in The Adjunct Underclass that it is within organizations that inequalities are most acutely experienced and reproduced. Further, scholars remind us that inequality varies widely between organizations precisely because organizational arrangements and cultures can change (Tomaskovic-Devey & Avent-Holt, 2019). This is true for policies related to adjunct faculty, whose pay, protections, visibility, and access to power vary across higher education institutions. It also true of the graduation rates and future earnings of low-income, first-generation students who attend diverse colleges and universities across our country. While Roth and Childress are right to ring the alarm bell about America's growing underclasses and the conditions that sustain them, perhaps by finding and learning about the few colleges, organizations, and sectors that are reducing rather than reproducing inequality, we may begin to chart our way toward a more equal and humanistic future.

    Becca Spindel Bassett


    Myrdal, G. (1963). A challenge to affluence. New York: Pantheon.

    Rolison, G. (1991). An exploration of the term underclass as it relates to African-Americans. Journal of Black Studies, 21(3), 287--301.

    Tomaskovic-Devey, D., & Avent-Holt, D. (2019). Relational inequalities: An organizational approach. New York: Oxford University Press.

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