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Guest opinion: Stephen Mumme and Caprice Lawless: Collective bargaining and the college tuition fallacy


By Stephen Mumme and Caprice Lawless

For better than a decade, faculty at Colorado’s public colleges and universities have sought to arrest the erosion of state investment in instructional capacity, best seen in the rapid growth of so-called adjunct, or nontenure-track faculty, over the past 25 years.

Today, these adjunct faculty provide between 30 to 70% of all undergraduate credit hour instruction to Colorado students, while compensated at less than living wage levels even when working full time at many Colorado colleges.

The problem is particularly acute at the community college level, where per-course salaries fall well below the inadequate rates meted out at four-year institutions.

Efforts to rectify the deteriorated working conditions for this now large and growing segment of Colorado’s faculty workforce have consistently run aground on the shoals of a particular fallacy fielded by university administrators: The trope that further investment in faculty salaries and working conditions will shoot student tuition through the roof, ensuring that college degrees are inaccessible to economically challenged students.

This begs the question: Does instructional investment in faculty really drive tuition hikes? Fortunately, there is a good deal of respectable research on this question. The short answer is no.

That tuition has risen markedly is incontestable. In the 2008-2018 decade Colorado tuition rose on average 69.8%. While costs vary by institution, on average instruction was just over 25% of the total budget. That might well lead one to believe that faculty salaries were driving the tuition spike.

That’s wrong. Investment in regular faculty salaries has held steady or fallen over the past decade, according to the highly regarded annual report issue by the American Association of University Professors.

Growth in compensation for adjunct faculty is minimal, consistently lagging inflation; in effect, resulting in declining real wages for those faculty shouldering much of the undergraduate education burden.

To take just one example, data from the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System show that the percentage of paid salaries and wages as a portion of the total instructional budget actually fell between 2016 and 2020 (the most recent data currently available) at most community colleges in the Denver metro area.

The three real culprits here are declining state support for public colleges and universities, rapid growth in administrative and noninstructional costs, and capital costs of construction. If tuition is rising, it’s hardly the result of heavy expenditure on faculty.

Such considerations should inform public opinion on the collective bargaining bill that was introduced Tuesday in the Colorado Senate of the General Assembly.

As evident in two recent articles in Grand Junction’s Colorado Sentinel, the bill’s opponents are quick to shout the measure will send tuition soaring. That is quite unlikely.

Not only are faculty salaries a smaller slice of the college spending pie chart, the proposed bill does not itself raise wages or ensure the formation of bargaining units at Colorado colleges and universities. It simply gives faculty an opportunity to attempt to do so.

The histrionics emanating from the bill’s opponents convey the impression that college employee unions are foreordained and sure to power tuition to the moon. That’s false.

So, while tuition is indeed rising, be wary of those blaming faculty for that trend.

In fact, Colorado’s investment in faculty has been sliding for years, and the proof is that poorly paid adjunct faculty now rival and surpass regular full-time faculty at most Colorado colleges and universities. That’s a fact.

Will rectifying this situation cost money? Yes, it will.

But making such long-neglected expenditures will only right the good ship college, not sink it. And if our many years in the teaching profession is any guide, no group will fight harder to check tuition and serve marginalized students than the faculty.

Now, how about those skyrocketing coaching contracts?

Stephen Mumme teaches political science at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, and Caprice Lawless teaches communications at Front Range Community College, Westminster. Both are co-presidents of the American Association of University Professors, Colorado Conference.