Adjunct professors at New York’s colleges and universities have long been among the most exploited employees in higher education.
They often teach the classes that have the highest number of enrollments and their salary –well below a living wage – is based solely on the time they devote to teaching. Extra hours spent on grading, preparing for their classes, or holding office hours for students are simply lumped together under a per-class payment of a few thousand dollars.
This exploitation extends to the exclusions of assistants from the Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), which allows borrowers with federal student loan debt to seek forgiveness of their loans once they have made 120 payments while working for an eligible nonprofit employer, or while serving in programs like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps.
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But there is a catch. Cancellation of civil service loans requires full-time employment of at least 30 hours per week, and few auxiliaries are credited with reaching this minimum. The result is the exclusion of thousands of hard-working assistants from a program offering much-needed debt relief.
Recently, the state Legislature approved a bill, sponsored by Senator Kevin Thomas and Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, that addresses this inequity by requiring employers to credit attendants with 3.35 hours of job for every hour spent teaching. The bill also standardizes the calculation of hours worked, giving assistants a much greater chance of qualifying for loan forgiveness.
The bill awaits Governor Kathy Hochul’s signature. Given her long history of advocacy on behalf of New York workers, we hope she sees the need to sign it soon.
My union, United University Professions, fights tirelessly for more funding for public higher education, which would help hire more full-time faculty. Today, only 56% of college faculty members are full-time employees, according to the Ministry of Education.
But even as we call for more full-time faculty positions, we must also recognize the hard work and dedication of our adjunct faculty members. Once in force, this bill will standardize the rules of the game for assistants with regard to qualification for the PSLF. At UUP alone, where I ran student debt clinics for several years, hundreds of our members have received nearly $1 million in debt relief through PSLF.
The PSLF program must be accessible to as many higher education teachers as possible. The UUP and our allies in higher education hope that New York will follow the lead of California, Washington and Oregon, and make it easier for adjunct professors to qualify for federal loan forgiveness.
The legislature did its part by passing the bill. Now we urge the governor to sign it into law. It’s a long-awaited way to tell adjunct professors across the state not only that their work matters, but that everything of their work will be counted.
Jeri O’Bryan-Losee is Secretary/Treasurer of United University Professions statewide.