Higher Ed in the News: 9/28

Photo by Max Böttinger on Unsplash.

This week on Higher Ed in the News, how institutions treat students who don’t identify race on applications may be obscuring the ways they approach equity. Also, the plight of adjunct professors during this difficult time.


Adjunct professors’ struggles grow amid pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed and exacerbated disparities in this country around race, income level, and occupation, leading to increased suffering for people already dealing with inequalities in their lives. Adjunct professors are one of those groups, as Laura Krantz of the Boston Globe explores.

Adjunct professors already dealt with issues around job security, pay, benefits, office accommodations, and opportunities for upward mobility. The lives of these educators who Krantz says are “more likely to be women and people of color” have only become more difficult. With some courses having been cancelled or reassigned, missing out on the per-course earnings is a huge financial obstacle to overcome, but adjuncts are also ineligible for unemployment compensation after losing those contracts.

Those who retained their positions experienced hardship as well, including unpaid hours spent acclimating to new technology for online instruction, diminished course loads, and the heightened risk of contracting coronavirus while conducting in-person courses. The latter of these concerns is by far the largest, as some schools plan to cancel adjunct professor’s pay if they can’t finish out the semester. 

In an effort to improve the working conditions, various groups are joining adjuncts in advocating for change. In multiple instances, this has come in the form of petitions signed by tenured faculty aimed at obtaining contract extensions for short-term instructors. The American Association of University Professors has also devised a solution where adjuncts are compensated for training on digital instruction, get paid time-off, have access to unemployment, and receive other improvements that would help their treatment mirror that of tenured faculty.


Academia ignores “race unknown” data at their own peril, research suggests

Researchers at Penn State and Michigan State believe that institutions of higher learning are ignoring college students that self-identify as “race unknown.” They say this category is often regarded as “noise” or a measurement error, but the research found that belief to be inaccurate. Many colleges and universities leave this group out of their reporting, which leads to inflated percentages for other racial populations and also changes the demographics of the student body.

The “race unknown” group is largest at the most and least selective institutions. For the less selective schools, researchers theorized that students either do not report their racial background or the schools may even observe students and assign a race and ethnicity themselves. The latter is problematic considering data from other sources show that “about 40% of the time, observer identification does not match self-identification.”

At more selective schools, researchers believe applicants may conceal their racial identity in order to increase their chances of gaining admission. One example from a Boston Globe article highlighted a director of a college admissions coaching company that recommends his Asian clients “play down their ethnic identity.”

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that research on the “race unknown” group is still light and needs to be studied further in order to understand why some students decide to withhold their racial and ethnic identity from their institution and what it means for equality in education.