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Students in Debt, Professors in Poverty - What's going wrong?

The fight for a living wage has been a hot-button issue over the past 5 years and will certainly be a talking point in upcoming presidential elections. 

In a time when college enrollment is booming and college tuition is at an all-time high, the prospect of getting an upper-level degree and working at a college or university would seem like a sure bet for anyone.And yet, in 2015, a PhD does not guarantee a great living. In fact, it doesn't guarantee you will be able to get by at all. Watch the new Brave New Films' short film "Professors in Poverty" (above) to see more.

Adjunct professors make up more than 51 percent of teaching faculty at colleges in the United States, across all levels (community colleges, research universities, etc.). An adjunct professor is just like any professor that teaches: has an upper-level masters or PhD, a full classroom of students to teach, exams to administer and curriculums to have approved. The only difference between an adjunct and a tenured professor is that adjuncts are hired by course; they are considered sub contractors, paid by the course they teach and have no job security for the following semester. They also tend to make $25,000 or less a year.

Tenured professorship is a slowly dying occupation. Schools will always have tenured professors; someone has to run to programs and get research grants. But adjuncts are the new Uber of higher learning. Adjuncts deliver the same level of competent instruction for half the price and there is no commitment by the college or university to pay benefits. Even as professors retire fewer universities are putting those positions on the tenure track. Instead, they claim to be "more flexible to student needs" by hiring adjuncts. In reality, they are cutting corners on salary and benefits.

The truth is adjuncts are struggling to meet their own needs, and thus struggling to do what they love: teach. About 22 percent of adjunct professors live BELOW the poverty line. That does not account for the thousands of others who live at or just above it, in a US economy who's "poverty line" would actually have to be doubled in the majority of it's cities for a family of three to afford basic living necessities. In short, many adjuncts are poor. With well over a 40 hour work week preparing curriculums, grading papers, and writing lectures, their pay generally averages out to about $10.00 an hour.

The starting pay at Starbucks is generally about $10.00.

Men and women who have dedicated their lives to academia are often taking on course loads on multiple campuses, in hopes of making ends meet. They have no idea if those same courses will be offered the next semester and must do what they can to make their money stretch. Many take jobs outside of academia, from retail to driving Uber to supplement income. Others need even more help. Twenty percent get earned income tax credit payments. Over 100,000 adjunct professors nationwide are on government assistance. Seven percent are on Medicaid.

With so much additional responsibility to survive, many adjuncts can't hold regular office hours at any of the campuses they teach. This comes at a huge disadvantage to their students who may need extra help, one-on-one tutoring, or to talk about the course. Still, colleges insist that the current model is the best way to serve its students. But the truth couldn't be any more clear: it's strictly about the money.

The sub-contractor business model is becoming increasingly popular in our "shared economy" society. But is it really working? Industries from Airbnb to shared rides are going before Congress and local and state governments as the demand for regulation is rising. The issue, of course, is not that jobs are getting created. The issue is that those working are getting exploited for the greed of the people at the top. Colleges and universities are no different.

Today, Brave New Films along with the New Faculty Majority, the National Education Association, the Association of American University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers, the Service Employees International Union, plus dozens of adjunct professors and students held a Congressional briefing on this pressing issue. What, sadly, will be one of the most educated rooms on Capitol Hill, will also be one of the poorest. They made their case that all colleges and universities need to prioritize adjunct salaries now; that the future of the countries best and brightest should not have to be juggled with numerous jobs to survive. And we should stand with them.

Watch the new short film Professors in Poverty. Allow the numbers to appall you. Then sign the petition and let everyone in Congress and the world of higher education know that we value higher education and the people who have given their lives to educate the future of this country.