Why a Cosmetology Certificate is Worth More Than an MFA, in the Ponzi Scheme of American Academia


I'm an adjunct professor, and have been since 1998. If I were not fortunate to have my job, I'd be just like anthropologist Sarah Kendzior and others who are either unemployed or making poverty wages as described in her Al Jazeera article. The disease in American higher education, which cannibalizes its young faculty and students, has been developing for decades.

Like many other American institutions, higher education is groaning under the weight of bloated budgets and is threatening to sink, Titanic-style. The last thing many schools think about is what students learn.

International students finance much of the disaster. American colleges and universities still attract nearly 1 million international students each year, a number that has risen steadily over the past five years, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Unlike American students who are accruing massive amounts of debt to pay for college, international students pay up front at much higher rates than American students. They are attending U.S. schools for an education, hoping to achieve a dream that they believe is not available in their country. 

The reality that students face when they attend a public university in the United States is stark contrast to the lofty visions of Hollywood films (Animal House excepted). Chances are they won't be taught by someone with a degree at all; they'll get a graduate assistant teaching a section of a course advertised under the name of a full professor who hasn't looked at student work or darkened a classroom door since he or she was a graduate assistant.

Or, they'll be taught by an adjunct faculty member -- according to the Adjunct Project -- two-thirds of American college and university classes are taught by adjunct (part-time) faculty. One Alabama school recorded at the Adjunct Project pays $560 a course. That is about $11 a classroom hour. Adjunct faculty typically receives no benefits and is paid hourly rates that sometimes work out to less than minimum wage. In the case of the appalling Alabama school, it would probably be $1 or $2 an hour when grading and preparation is considered.

The use of adjunct faculty has accelerated in recent years, at the same time as college tuition and fees have skyrocketed. Cal State University classified (non-teaching) staff had received no raise in five years, and adjunct faculty are paid on an hourly basis, averaging between $18 and $35 an hour. These hours are based on actual time in the classroom, not a 40-hour week.

Is an adjunct faculty member by definition, a bad teacher? Not at all. Students do get an Ivy-tinged education from me, sprinkled heavily with Valley Girl. But how many adjunct faculty are like me -- working professional writers constantly seeking to improve the classroom experience and outcomes? My unique circumstances are exactly that. Most of my colleagues would love a full-time position. Most are overworked, driving all over creation to make ends meet, and many have concluded it's better to teach part-time and work full time doing something else.

It's a calculation that cheats students (of course), and indentures part-timers in order to benefit high-paid administrators and bloated expense accounts that exceed most faculty salaries. Amid budget cuts and tuition hikes, the tone-deaf Cal State University administrators voted to give themselves pay raises to over $300,000 a year twice in 2012, and to increase expense accounts in the $60,000 to $70,000 range. Most institutions of higher education balance their budgets by filling schedules with part-time instructors who lack offices, don't meet with other faculty, and must pay to attend conferences in their discipline out of their poverty-level wages. 

How long has this been going on? At least 20 years. When I enrolled in my graduate program at Chapman University in 1996, it was one of only three in Southern California, and admitted about 9 students a year. Three years later, when I graduated, my program had expanded from about 9 students to over 30. Let's just say not all of those 30 new students could write. This sudden expansion occurred nationally, with thousands of "creative writing" graduate students attending almost 400 different programs. This magazine and these rankings did not exist in 1996. At this point, I'm certain a cosmetology certificate is worth more than an MFA in Creative Writing.

It should go without saying that all of those graduate students paying $30,000 and up to "learn to be writers" aren't going to write the Great American Novel, and they're not going to be getting one of the handful of full-time teaching jobs that opens each year. And that's just my discipline. Even in science and math, the number of full time positions is small, and the number of those with degrees competing for them is large.

It's very much like a Ponzi scheme, and it's a wonder that it hasn't failed before now. It certainly is failing students, and talented young researchers like Sarah Kendzior and her colleagues. How much longer before international students realize they can and will learn more at home and have brighter futures as well?