AKRON, Ohio - When Rob Balla left advertising to teach college, he thought it would take two or three years to land a full-time job.
Nine years later, he's still stringing together part-time jobs, even though he has two bachelor's and two master's degrees and teaches beginning writing courses -- the bread and butter of many freshman schedules.
"I have a conversation with my family every single semester about how long I can stay with this," he said. "I don't know how much longer I can last."
Balla, 41, is among the hundreds of "road scholars" who teach part time at colleges nationwide.
Their ranks have swelled so much since the 1970s that today they account for about 700,000 of the 1.8 million faculty at two- and four-year institutions nationwide, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.
At the University of Akron, almost six out of 10 instructors work part time, the highest ratio of part- to full-timers in the state, according to figures the public universities supplied.
Not only is the number of part-timers high, so is the number of course sections they teach. In fall 2011, part-timers (2,720) taught more sections of undergraduate courses than did full-time faculty (2,591). In other words, an undergraduate had about a 50/50 chance of getting a part-time instructor.
The heavy reliance on part-timers has cost Akron: It was denied a Phi Beta Kappa chapter about three years ago for that reason. The honor society, America's oldest and arguably most prestigious, has chapters in six tax-supported universities in Ohio, including Kent State and Ohio State.
The issue of part-time faculty is a sensitive one for Akron Provost Mike Sherman, who oversees university academics.
He points out that Akron alone among Ohio universities has a two-year college of its own, and two-year colleges typically hire greater numbers of part-timers than four-year schools. Those distinctive staffing needs can't be discounted, and they skew Akron's part-time staffing to the high side, he said.
And the high number of part-timers is not necessarily a bad thing, Sherman said.
"They teach at the same level of quality as full-time faculty," he said. "They bring their own experiences from their own jobs -- real-world experiences."
There is no correct "formula" on how many part-timers is appropriate, he said.
At Youngstown State, where part-timers represent 57 percent of the teaching staff, Provost Ikram Khawaja sounds a similar theme.
Part-time faculty allow Youngstown State "to offer classes over a wider range of times and days to meet the scheduling needs of our students," he said.
Youngstown State's 573 part-time faculty represent 286 staffers on a full-time, normalized basis. In other words, their numbers are not as great as it might appear, he said.
Statewide, the percentage of part- to full-time faculty ranges from a low of 24 percent at Miami University to the high of 59 percent at Akron, according to numbers the universities supplied.
There is another reason to hire "contingent" (part-time) faculty: They're much cheaper than full-time faculty with tenure or who are on the tenure track.
Part-time faculty typically make about $3,000 per course, or $18,000 for three courses in two semesters. In contrast, tenured faculty make $60,000 to $100,000 or more over two semesters. Part of the difference in the salaries is due to differing responsibilities.
Tenured faculty conduct research; contingent faculty do not.
There are other differences, as well.
Part-time faculty have no promise of employment from term to term and by law can't organize. At Akron, they must pay 100 percent of their health-care premium, while full-timers pay about 15 percent.
Part-timers often are professionals with other jobs.
Akron spokeswoman Eileen Korey points out that the school hires part-timers from some of the area's most prominent employers, from the Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs law firm to FirstEnergy to the Akron Symphony Orchestra.
"There is, of course, recognition that full-time faculty are highly qualified in their fields and are an asset to any major research university and should provide the bulk of instruction," she said in an email.
Sherman, the Akron provost, said he aims to "right-size" the balance of ratio of full- to part-timers in coming years. He is not sure what that might be.
Many part-timers are satisfied teaching a course here and there and do not want full-time teaching jobs. But many do, according to this year's survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce.
It found that more than three-quarters of about 20,000 contingent faculty nationwide have sought or were seeking a full-time job.
That makes Matt Williams see red. The former part-timer at Akron, Stark State and elsewhere has made it his life's work to improve his former colleagues' pay and prospects.
"The university's budget is being balanced on the back of these exploited workers," Williams said of Akron in a Sept. 27 post on the "Akron Adjunct" blog.
He is upset
the university spends so much money on administrative salaries and so little on that of part-timers who provide the bulk of instruction.
Korey noted that the university spends only 15 percent of the faculty salaries on part-timers.
Williams' own financial situation has improved since he left teaching to become a self-employed consultant in marketing and government affairs. He and his family have health care, unlike the days when he was teaching and they were on Medicaid because he didn't make enough money.
He and Maria Maisto, the New Faculty Majority president, say students suffer when they're taught by part-timers. Those part-timers might not be around campus much and might not have the doctorates that tenure and tenure-track faculty almost always do.
Some part-timers have no more than bachelor's degrees.
In addition, most universities don't support their contingent faculty "in their efforts to be effective educators," according to the UCLA report.
Many part-timers do not have private offices or even shared offices, an institutionally provided computer or even a campus phone and voice mail. Some commute campus to campus, teaching a course here and there.
Balla, for instance, teaches three courses totaling 12 credit hours at Akron, the maximum the university allows, and he is far from alone.
This fall, 90 of more than 1,000 part-time faculty at Akron carried similar credit loads. Many of those part-timers, like Balla, teach courses in English, although others teach a wide variety of courses ranging from developmental programs to sports science and wellness to electrical and computer engineering.
They are paid per credit hour that they teach, so the higher their credit load and the more experience they have teaching, the more they make. This fall, credit-hour payments ranged from $618 to $1,442 at Akron.
Balla is close to the mid-range, making $896 per credit hour.
Like many part-timers, he decided that wasn't enough money. So he signed up to teach five more courses at Stark State, Walsh University and the for-profit Bryant and Stratton College as well.
That means long days, carting a manila folder of student work with him wherever he goes for grading, to make the princely sum of about $32,000 a year. That could increase if he can find summer work.
He doesn't have health care for his wife, who is getting a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling and who has had cancer, and his children, ages 16 and 9.
Nor are prospects good for a full-time job. Over the past year or so, he was a finalist for full-time positions at two other universities, but didn't get one job and funding was pulled for the second.
As he keeps looking, he considers getting a doctorate to further polish his credentials and perhaps give him an edge in the job market. But that would cost an estimated $50,000 and he doesn't want to do the research that is part of the responsibility of a tenure-track job.
He said he is happy with what he does now. All he wants is a full-time, non-tenure-track job that pays a modest $40,000 a year plus the health benefits his family needs.
"The question is: Do I leave education altogether or try to stick it out for one more year?" he asked.
He is signed up for five courses at three universities for the spring semester in January and is hoping more courses will come his way.