7 campus healthcare facts to know

Insurance access and coverage trends for adjunct professors and part-time staff

Increasing public pressure and a growing union presence have driven higher ed institutions to improve the experience for part-time faculty and staff.

Adjuncts, for example, are now more likely to get pay raises, have job stability and be welcome in faculty circles.

On the health insurance front, however, the situation is not so rosy. Here are seven realities to recognize.

1. Most adjuncts and part-time employees do not receive health benefits.

More than half of all faculty positions were part-time as of 2015, according to the American Association of University Professors. Since faculty classified as part time are typically paid by the course, many lack access to health insurance.

Because of the Affordable Care Act, since 2014 colleges have been required to offer health insurance to adjuncts and part-time staff, including temporary employees, who work the equivalent of 30 hours per week (penalties began in 2015).

However, most adjuncts do not reach that number.

According to the CUPA-HR 2016-17 Survey of Healthcare Benefits in Higher Education, 38 percent of institutions offer healthcare benefits to part-time staff and 35 percent offer healthcare benefits to part-time faculty. (The sample size for this survey was 358.)

2. Many colleges cap the number of courses adjuncts can teach, impacting benefit eligibility.

“Obamacare required most colleges to offer health insurance to adjuncts, and to counter that, colleges cut adjuncts’ hours so that they were below the minimum required by Obamacare,” says P.D. Lesko, publisher of AdjunctNation.com.

Several institutions did so just before the regulations took effect.

In Maryland, community colleges in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Howard and Prince George’s counties limited adjuncts’ hours in 2013. Some individual colleges in other states—such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia—did the same thing.

The American Federation of Teachers has published a list of colleges (see UBmag.me/ACAchanges) that it says capped adjuncts’ hours to avoid meeting ACA requirements to provide health benefits.

3. When part-timers do qualify for health insurance, institutions generally offer identical plans to everyone.

The University of Michigan, which has offered health benefits to part-time faculty and staff for decades, provides the same health benefits to part-timers as to full-timers.

“Coverage under the University of Michigan health plans already exceeded most of the ACA mandates before the regulations went into effect,” says Brian Vasher, director of operations for the university’s benefits office.

“We made no changes in hours for eligibility specific to adjuncts.”

Part-time faculty and staff who work the equivalent of 20 hours per week are offered the same health benefits as full-time faculty and staff—although the part-timers pay a higher monthly premium, says Vasher.

Grinnell College in Iowa has also given benefits to part-time faculty and staff for a long time.

“A best practice, I would say, would be to offer the same benefits,” says Mary Greiner, assistant vice president of human resources.

For most colleges, she adds, it wouldn’t make sense to create a separate healthcare plan for the part-timers. “It would be cost prohibitive.” 

Whether they’re fully insured or self-insured could drive how colleges would aggregate the tiers of what to charge employees for premiums.

4. Multicampus systems don’t necessarily offer the same health benefits to part-time employees and adjuncts on all campuses.

Four of the five University of Massachusetts campuses offer healthcare and retirement benefits to adjuncts.

The Lowell campus does not. Adjuncts there launched the Justice for Lowell campaign in June 2018 to publicize the fact that they are the only such group in the UMass system without healthcare and retirement benefits.

At other UMass campuses, adjunct faculty who teach just two classes per semester are eligible for health benefits and a pension.

“At UMass Lowell, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there or how many classes you teach, there’s no insurance, no benefits, no pension under any circumstances,” says Tess George, who has been an adjunct at the university for about a decade and is the communications director of the adjunct faculty union.

“Also, just a weird little oddity is that under Massachusetts law, educational employers don’t have to take out Social Security. If you were to teach at UMass Lowell for a long time, as I have, and are close to retirement age, as I am, you get nothing.”

5. Adjunct faculty unionization has not had much impact on access to health insurance.

Part-time faculty unions have been somewhat successful in narrowing pay gaps and increasing job security, but healthcare benefits have been harder to obtain.

Adjunct faculty won salary increases in each of the collective bargaining agreements ratified at 35 colleges and universities between 2010 and 2016, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported this past June.

6. In one state, legislators introduced a bill to offer health insurance to adjuncts.

An Act Investing in Public Higher Education would provide adjunct faculty at all public colleges in Massachusetts the same employer-sponsored health insurance that other public sector workers receive—if they teach at least two, three-credit courses in a semester or four courses in an academic year across all campuses in which they work.

In June 2018, the Joint Committee on Higher Education endorsed the bill and referred it to the committee on House Ways and Means, but as of mid-November no further action had been taken.

7. Part-timers who work too few hours to qualify for coverage can easily get into serious medical debt.

Adjunct Rebecca Snow taught simultaneously at two Colorado community colleges for many years. More than two years after leaving, she is still paying off $15,000 in medical debt—incurred while working at those institutions because she did not have health insurance.

“The lack of health insurance wasn’t the main reason I left, but it definitely compounded the stress I had, along with the low wages—which made it difficult to find housing—and the job insecurity,” she says.

Snow is currently working as a freelance copy editor—so she still does not have health insurance.

Elaina Loveland is a Washington, D.C.-area writer.


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