Stacey Patton

Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University

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'Suicide Is My Retirement Plan'

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Image: Debra Leigh Scott. (Photo by Deb Boardman)

Ask Debra Leigh Scott how she plans to make ends meet after her teaching career is over, and her answer is direct. “Suicide,” she says, “is my retirement plan.”

Of course, she doesn’t want to kill herself. But there might come a time, she says, when ending her life would be the only “dignified” escape from the indignities of growing old with no safety net.

Scott, an artist who just turned 60, is an adjunct professor teaching in Temple University’s intellectual-heritage program. She’s a member of the first generation of a relatively new breed of adjunct: the teacher who wanted to become a full-time professor but never got the opportunity. A divorced mother of two grown children, she has now been teaching for over 25 years, cobbling together different types of jobs to scrape by. She got beaten down by the recession, lost several jobs and her home, and she’s used what little savings she had to stay afloat.

Though she knows how to “bend a nickel in five directions,” Scott hasn’t been able to put any money aside for retirement. Her decision to pursue an academic career has required that she live as simply and frugally as possible, without the ability to help launch her children into their adult lives.

“I couldn’t help them with tuition. My son has chosen to leave college and is working full time, and my daughter has a six-figure debt that she’ll be paying in her 40s,” Scott says. “So you could say that they’ve already paid for my life choices.”

Scott is just one of an untold number of graying adjunct professors for whom retirement is not a time to look forward to but a thing to fear. Since the recession, adjuncts are hardly the only ones worrying about retirement. But professors who serve on a temporary or at-will basis can spend a lifetime working with no upward mobility and no ability to amass savings. The retirement-planning structure that benefits tenured professors doesn’t work for adjuncts, they say, and their colleges often leave them on their own when it comes to their post-teaching security.

Over the past few months, I’ve talked with a number of adjuncts in their 60s. Many of them say they don’t know how they will survive if they’re too old to teach, if they get sick, or if their institutions decide not to renew their contracts. Many believe they’ll never be able to retire.

“Unless you have a spouse or partner, you’re looking at dire poverty in old age,” says Scott. “In addition to poverty, you’re looking at getting no additional work because of your age, or you’re looking at dropping dead in the classroom.”

‘Absolute Fear’

Still fresh on the minds of many older adjuncts is Margaret Mary Vojtko, the 83-year-old Duquesne University adjunct who suffered a heart attack on her front lawn last year. Vojtko, who had taught at the university for 25 years, was broke and left without medical coverage after the university declined to renew her contract.

“To drop dead in front of your home is everyone’s nightmare,” says Maria C. Maisto, president of New Faculty Majority, an organization that supports adjuncts and contingent professors. Vojtko’s story “concretized what people have felt could happen to them in the future as they age,” she says. “There’s absolute fear.”

The adjunct professor, she says, has come to represent “a lost generation of faculty” who have been stuck in their positions for years. “More elderly folks are outliving their families, and they don’t have retirement savings to fall back on,” she says. “It’s a story about aging, poverty, and loneliness in America.”

Betsy Smith, a 68-year-old adjunct who has been teaching at Cape Cod Community College since 2000, echoes Maisto: “We are going to have a serious problem, an absolute disaster of people living with no heat and no health insurance. We’re going to see more Margaret Mary Vojtkos, and nobody wants to deal with it.”

No one knows how many aging adjuncts are in the danger zone. It’s not hard to find troubling anecdotes about the material realities of contingent professors who are reaching retirement age. But it’s difficult getting hard data from scholars, union leaders, or retirement-planning organizations. No one could tell me how many adjuncts are putting money away for retirement, how their average savings compare to those of full-time faculty or K-12 teachers, or what future trends will look like. (We’ve conducted an informal online survey of some part-time professors; see the results here.)

“To date, academic researchers have focused on the retirement of traditional faculty, tenure-track and tenured individuals,” says Paul Yakoboski, a senior economist with the TIAA-CREF Institute. “We don’t have data yet on adjuncts. It’s a gap in our research knowledge that we need to start filling.”

Once upon a time, the National Center for Education Statistics tracked full-time and part-time faculty by age. Its last survey, conducted in the fall of 2003, found that among faculty members between 55 and 64 years old, 40 percent were part-time professors. Increase the age range to 70 and over, though, and 70 percent were part-timers.

More recently, in the fall of 2013, the American Federation of Teachers surveyed 743 part-time faculty members. The majority of the cohort—57 percent—were over age 50. Sixty-two percent of the respondents said that pension and retirement benefits at their institutions were falling short.

Paying In

In recent years, universities have adopted buyouts and phased retirement plans, established retirement centers, and provided office space and other resources to spare faculty retirees from intellectual and social isolation. Conspicuously missing from the discussions and the campus initiatives, though, are contingent faculty.

Many adjuncts, Maisto says, are not entitled to health insurance or 401(k)’s. At some institutions, adjuncts pay into a retirement system for state teachers; at others, they pay into Social Security. Neither option, adjuncts say, is set up to benefit low-wage employees: If you don’t make much money, you can’t invest much, and you don’t get much of a return.

“Unless you are a new Ph.D. working somewhere, now it’s too late to start thinking about saving for retirement,” says Smith. “Who at age 50, working part time, is going to be able to amass enough money to retire on?”

Smith has been teaching grade school through college since 1976, and is enrolled in the state OBRA system, a mandatory, employee-funded retirement contribution plan for part-time public employees who are not eligible for public pensions. In Massachusetts, contingent faculty members teaching at public institutions do not have Social Security taxes removed from their paychecks and are not eligible to receive benefits based on that employment once they retire. Neither the college nor the state contributes to the plan.

“The idea that anyone earning contingent faculty wages could ever afford to retire based on what they've saved through this plan is both ludicrous and insulting,” Smith says.

Still, she plans to retire at the end of this semester. She says she’ll be OK because when she divorced her husband of 30 years, the judge granted her modest monthly spousal support as well as a chunk of her ex-husband’s retirement fund. She’ll also qualify for a portion of his Social Security earnings, and she’ll be eligible for her own Social Security payments from previous jobs. But if she had to rely only on her OBRA plan, she says, “I’d be in the same situation as Margaret Mary Vojtko.”

Some public institutions let adjuncts choose whether to contribute to Social Security, the state teacher-retirement system, or a tax-deferred annuity program. Most teacher-retirement plans include a pension, death benefits, and a disability pension that is paid into by the employee. Some universities contribute; others don’t. Anywhere from 3 percent to 10 percent of the instructor’s gross salary is deducted from each paycheck.

The teacher-retirement plans—which are offered at public institutions in states like Ohio, Texas, and Florida—can be a double-edged sword. Unlike with Social Security, adjuncts can withdraw money from those retirement funds when they stop teaching, but they’re taxed for doing so. “Their safety evaporates because they need to money to cover their bills,” says Matt Williams, a former adjunct professor at the University of Akron who serves on the board of directors of New Faculty Majority. “Your retirement will be based largely on what your income was when you retired. The benefit level you will get is not going to be enough to live on. It wasn’t enough to live on while you were working, and now you’re getting a fraction of that.”

Mary Gray, a tenured associate professor of mathematics and statistics at American University, puts it even more bluntly: “Part-time faculty are signed up by universities into what amounts to privatized Social Security,” says Gray, who will retire next year.

For professors who piece together a career teaching at several institutions, retirement planning can be especially confusing. Yvonne Bruce is a 49-year-old adjunct professor who has been teaching for 11 years and is already worried about retirement. She teaches English literature and composition at John Carroll University, Cuyahoga Community College, and Case Western Reserve University.

Bruce’s retirement benefits are split among several employers, two private and one public. This year Bruce grossed a little more than $40,000 from teaching 12 courses. (Her salary fluctuates, she says, based on how much institutions pay per course, whether any of her courses get canceled at the last minute, and whether she can snag a summer session.) She provided a sample breakdown of retirement contributions she’s made through four institutions since last year:

Can’t Retire; Hanging On

Last August, Bruce attended a session on faculty retirement at a state teacher-retirement information fair in Columbus. “I had questions as an adjunct,” Bruce says. “I wanted to know how contributing to Social Security and the state pension system would affect my retirement income. They didn’t have an answer for me.”

“Most colleges do not provide beginning adjuncts with the kind of orientations common for new full-time employees for whom HR discusses benefits, retirement options, and the like,” she says. (TIAA-CREF just released a report offering a number of recommendations for how institutions can educate adjuncts about their financial options. But the report doesn’t mention that adjuncts might not have money to be managed.)

So why has there been so little progress in improving adjuncts’ retirement outlook?

On the one hand, Gray says, administrators are more engaged with a different retirement issue—trying to figure out ways to get the full-timers to leave the classroom.

On the other hand, adjunct-advocacy groups have focused on other labor concerns.

“I would say that retirement benefits not seeming like a high priority for activists isn’t so much about the benefits actually being of no interest,” says Alyssa Picard, acting director of the American Federation of Teachers’ higher-education wing. “It’s a matter of other, even more urgent priorities crowding out another important but longer-term goal.”

Williams, of New Faculty Majority, agrees. “The concerns that are faced by adjuncts on a day-to-day are so immediate that they defer the ones that might come 10 to 20 years from now,” he says.

That leaves the current crop of aging adjuncts in a bind. For now, Debra Leigh Scott says, there’s no choice but to “soldier on.”

“We really have all been forced into taking a vow of poverty,” she says. “I don't intend to give up. I don't want to give up.”

To gain more insight, we conducted an online survey asking adjuncts about their current retirement situations. More than 200 professors responded. View the results here.

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