The Rockies weren’t rocky enough: Colorado Community College System does away with out-of-state online instructors

Already famous for the Rocky Mountains, Colorado may have just gotten even rockier for adjuncts hoping to teach online. An article in the Denver Post announced that the state’s community college system is dismissing online instructors who don’t live in the state. Complying with burdensome and expensive HR rules and paperwork seems to be the rationale, as the community college system must ensure that for each out-of-state online instructor, they are adhering to the employment laws of the state where that instructor is physically working. Moving forward, instructors who to teach at any of Colorado’s 13 community colleges, including online instructors at Colorado Community College Online (CCCOnline), will have to live in Colorado, even if they don't have to report physically to work. Instructors who live outside Colorado are not being asked to return next semester.

Students Rely on Online Courses and Colleges Rely on Adjuncts

According the most recent data available, online education has exploded in recent years and distance education enrollments continues to grow at public colleges. There is a need for instructors to teach online courses, whether they be full-time or adjunct and whether or not they live in the state where they teach.

If you think colleges and universities can do without adjunct faculty, you haven’t been paying attention. There is a heavy reliance on part- and full-time non-tenure track instructors, commonly referred to as adjunct or contingent instructors, in academia. Many of them work in community colleges. For example, in 2009, 70 percent of faculty hired at 987 community colleges were contingent. Dismissing online instructors who don’t live in the state may permanently reduce the number of contingent faculty employed in Colorado’s community college system. This is especially true if all instructors who aren’t being rehired can’t be replaced with instructors who live in Colorado.

Furthermore, this lack of staff could reduce the number of courses offered at institutions, including online courses. If this happens, community college students, many who rely on the flexibility of distance education, will have a hard time completing their programs without access to these online and hybrid/blended classes.

Venturing into rocky terrain, the Colorado Community College system (CCCS) has raised some very serious questions: Can online learning truly be boundaryless, where neither the location a student learns nor the location an instructor teaches matters? Will HR regulations and state authorization requirements, limit the potential of a online learning ecosystem without boundaries and without walls? Moreover, how have other states managed to keep employing instructors who don’t live in the same state they teach? And finally, is this new policy really related to the rules and regulations of employing instructors who live in other states or is there more to this story than is being told?

Rules, Regulations, and Authorizations

Boundaryless online education is no small feat, but progress has been made to make it easier for colleges to teach students who live in other states. For example, The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements’ (NC-SARA) State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA) established comparable standards for interstate offering of postsecondary distance education and a uniform standard for physical presence, which can, if triggered, require an institution to seek state authorization to do business in that other state. However, in the case for adjuncts under these agreements, physical presence is not triggered by residing in a member SARA state (so long as those faculty teach entirely via distance education and meet with students only within the SARA guidelines).

The CCCS and other colleges, for example in Michigan and Arizona, note how expensive and burdensome it can be to get authorization from other states, and comply with varying state employment laws. However, Ray Hogler, a lawyer and leader in the Colorado Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) postulates because employment arrangements between instructors and the CCCS are often made in Colorado, the community college system wouldn’t have to comply to employment laws of other states. Additionally, he thinks issues around workers compensation, one area the CCCS system noted can vary widely, are hardly relevant for instructors who teach online. A solution could be to hire online instructors as independent contractors, something Hogler believes the CCCS would be reluctant to do because it would establish a contractual relationship between the college and the instructor, and give adjuncts more control over their working arrangements.

Colorado Adjuncts Unite

It is well documented that adjunct faculty occupy the lowest rung in academia, and are often compensated poorly for the same instructional work that non-contingent faculty provide. Adjuncts across the nation are unionizing for better compensation, including CCCS instructors. In 2014, members of Colorado Conference of the AAUP sought to establish a faculty bill of rights that would consider everyone with teaching responsibilities in the CCCS a member of the faculty, with all the rights and responsibilities of faculty. Advocates took steps to get two bills sponsored in the Colorado General Assembly, one in the house and senate, that included this same language. Once classified as faculty, everyone with teaching responsibilities would have had the same responsibilities, benefits, and freedoms of regular faculty, commensurate with the employee's education, training, experience, and teaching skill. Both bills, SB 15-094 and HB 14-1154, were defeated. Adjuncts’ push for better compensation and respect, however, didn’t abate.

In 2014 Dr. Nancy J. McCallin, President of the CCCS, commissioned the systems’ Adjunct Instructors Task Force to discuss results from an adjunct survey administered that year and how to implement recommendations to key issues related to adjunct participation in curriculum development, professional development, and the ability of the CCCS system to attract and retain the best adjunct instructors and deliver the best education to students by raising the adjunct instructor pay level by 28 percent. The recommendations--10 in total--were presented to the State Board for Community Colleges and Occupational Education (SBCCOE), which governs the CCCS. SBCCOE later accepted eight. Notably, the recommendation to increase pay by 28 percent was one of two not endorsed.

Public college systems across the country are facing tight budgets and are being asked to do more with less. The CCCS noted expensive and burdensome HR paperwork required to be in compliance with other states’ employment laws no longer being feasible without any additional resources, suggesting that colleges are looking to make reasonable cuts anywhere they can. The additional pressure from adjuncts demanding fairer pay and compensation, may not be making things easier. In fact, their calls for better compensation may have propelled the CCCS to eliminate online instructors who don't reside in Colorado, the inconvenience of complying with varying HR policies and establishing authorization in non-SARA states ironically becoming convenient ways save money and curb reliance on contingent faculty simultaneously.

Two Lesser Evils

Michigan and Arizona, have similar, although not identical policies on instructors who live in other states, naming--you guessed it--the complexity of maintaining compliance with varying states’ authorizations. In 2014, Ferris State University in Michigan implemented a policy where as a general rule, faculty would not be allowed to teach from another state, and all faculty who reside outside of Michigan and intend to teach from their residency state must be approved by the Provost’s office prior to being hired.

Rio Salado College, an online community college in Arizona, states that employment of adjunct faculty in certain states triggers the requirement to apply for formal authorization to operate in that state. The college therefore is unable to hire adjunct faculty in states they haven’t sought authorization. Neither colleges have gone so far as the CCCS as to eliminate all online instructors who don’t live in the state. Ferris State says it will at least consider the costs and burden associated with gaining the required approval before making a hiring decision. Rio Salado has secured the appropriate state authorizations in all but two states.

Michigan and Arizona also happen to have turbulent histories with adjuncts vigorously organizing or collectively bargaining, but not as aggressively as CCCS’ adjuncts getting legislation introduced in the state’s assembly. In 2011, about 25 adjuncts at Ferris State University held a sit-in in the president's office for about two and a half hours before being asked to leave by police. The adjuncts, part of the school's newly formed adjunct union at the time, argued that the college's administrators had been intractable in negotiations and unwilling to address issues such as job security and benefits.

And in Arizona, the University of Arizona was among the colleges participating in the National Adjunct Walkout Day in 2015. While adjuncts at Rio Salado haven't raised any commotion yet, adjuncts everywhere stand to benefit from successful collective bargaining activities and organizing, and especially where agitation sparks close to home.

Pressure Cooker

The rise of the unionization of adjuncts, national and local advocacy campaigns for better adjunct working conditions, make finding ways to curb the use of out-of-state adjuncts necessary because raising the floor for some adjuncts, may at some point mean raising the floor for all adjuncts.This is what advocacy is all about.

Institutions may be waking up to the possibility that they would have to subsidize larger salaries and benefits, and guarantee greater job security to all adjuncts employed by their institution as union and advocacy efforts are successful. This is especially true at colleges that have experienced high-profile activities for better compensation for contingent faculty, either in the state assembly like in Colorado or directly on their campus as in the case at Ferris State. Adjuncts who live in other states are easy targets because they don’t live in the state where they work and can’t effectively organize with advocacy efforts locally. Some may justify their removal on the grounds that because they don’t live in the state where they work, they’re not contributing to the local economy the same way as someone who works in the same state they live.

Just consider the efforts of the Colorado Conference of the AAUP to abolish the distinctions between contingent and non-contingent faculty and at Ferris State, adjuncts occupying the president's office in their effort for better pay.  Recall even how implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) caused colleges to trim adjunct work hours so they didn’t have to offer health insurance to these employees as evidence that improved adjunct working conditions have caused and will continue to cause systems with dwindling or constrained resources to find ways to save, at the expense of their adjunct labor force.

The unionization of adjuncts and collective bargaining activities on their part, make it rational for colleges, many that are strapped for funds, to prohibit online instructors who don’t reside in the state to teach at their institutions. To be sure, labor and employment issues on college campuses can be complicated. However, it seems the less aggressive, or nonexistent the organizing by adjuncts, as in the case of Rio Salado College, the more open colleges are to ensuring adjuncts who live in other states can continue to teach. The more aggressive the organizing by adjuncts, as seen in the CCCS and at Ferris State, the less open colleges are to ensuring adjuncts living in other states can continue to teach at their institutions.

In the end however, students and staff alike will suffer. As one CCCOnline instructor who’s been given the pink slip said a student once told him: “I was going to drop out of school until I met you”."


Manuela Ekowo is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She provides research and analysis on policies related to higher education including innovations in higher education delivery, the use of technology, and ensuring equitable outcomes for underrepresented students.