Unleashing the power of virtual adjunct faculty. Six risks higher ed institutions should consider.

10/28/2021
Unleashing the power of virtual adjunct faculty. Six risks higher ed institutions should consider.

Michael Plater, Ph.D. | Vice President, Higher Education

If the last year and a half has taught us anything, it’s that learning can happen anywhere, especially outside the traditional college campus. We have now reached a stage of advancement where many students prefer the cost and convenience of online programs. A recent Cengage survey showed 73 percent of college students want some courses to be online even after the pandemic is over.  

Today’s institutions are facing the challenge of not only building a modern digital learning environment, but also ensuring that virtual instruction is high-quality, relevant, and inclusive of diverse experiences and perspectives.

Because instruction can be delivered from around the world, it’s refreshing to see many colleges and universities embrace a much wider, global recruitment net –– enabling them to attract experts in their field as adjunct faculty –– to their programs regardless of geography.

As president emeritus of Strayer University and a former dean for both North Carolina A&T State and Brown universities, I have helped innovative colleagues across the spectrum of higher education adapt to a virtual environment – an instructional method that was questioned by many before the pandemic.

We learned that while this is an immense opportunity, it is one that comes with a fair share of risk. Wage and hour compliance as well as tax laws vary tremendously from state to state and staying up to date on these regulations demands diligence and dedication. What’s more, many institutions are under the assumption that simply adhering to their own state’s laws is enough. Not true. Employers must adhere to the laws of where their employees live.

Interpreting compliance with these laws puts a sizable burden on higher ed administrators, who must monitor and assure fidelity to local, state, federal, and international standards. Employers who violate state or federal minimum wage or overtime pay requirements may face, among other things, governmental fines and claims for back wages.

When it comes to wage and hour compliance alone, here are just a few things institutions must consider:

  1. Exempt/non-exempt classification. Some states classify adjunct instructors as exempt from overtime while others classify the position as non-exempt. 
  2. Employee leave laws. Different states have different employee leave laws, such as paid sick leave, COVID leave, state family leave plans, and pay equity laws.
  3. Meal and rest breaks and reporting time pay. Requirements around meal and rest breaks and the timing of such breaks vary by state. For example, different states have different reporting time requirements in the event an employee reports to work and is for some reason sent home.
  4. Payroll practices. States have different requirements around how frequently employees must be paid and different timing requirements around how quickly final pay should be processed.
  5. Reimbursement requirements. A handful of states and localities require that employers reimburse employees for all business-related expenses, including internet, cell phone usage, and mileage.
  6. Minimum wage requirements. These can vary by state and can also vary by geographic area within a state.

It’s a critical and complex undertaking to provide such a breath of academic experiences, but one that forward-looking institutions are embracing. They recognize this change is needed to attract the most qualified adjunct candidates and meet students’ growing demands for virtual instruction. And they know that getting it right requires experienced, consultative partners who have been in their shoes and can help them develop and customize an adjunct talent management system that works for them.

Getting this complex opportunity right is why I joined Kelly Education to lead its higher education practice. For 75 years, Kelly has been helping institutions around the world attract, onboard, train, develop and manage their workforce. Our more than 200 higher education clients trust us to conscientiously manage their payroll and help them navigate wage and hour compliance standards in the U.S. and abroad. As higher education institutions embrace this period of profound and exciting change, the Kelly Education team stands ready to support their efforts to build and cultivate a world-class adjunct talent pool.

Consider the case of one private college in New York state, who recently turned to Kelly Education to help eliminate compliance headaches as it onboarded 98 adjunct faculty members. Or a public community college in Missouri, who tasked Kelly with payroll management – including workers’ compensation – so administrators could focus on what matters most: providing affordable, high-quality education opportunities to residents.

Competition for academic talent is fierce, so perhaps the biggest benefit of a well-managed adjunct workforce is the ability to develop and retain qualified and dedicated contingent faculty members. From ensuring that adjunct instructors receive a consistent, accurate paycheck to, in some cases, providing the opportunity to access employee benefits through Kelly Services, a thoughtfully run program makes all the difference in improving their experience while reducing risk to the institutions they represent.

Online adjunct instructors were higher education’s heroes during the pandemic. As institutions across the country rethink how they do business, getting their plan for managing a contingent, virtual workforce right has never been more important.

To that end, we’ve created a webinar to help institutions better understand the benefits of hiring virtual adjunct faculty, and employing remote academic and non-academic employees, while also mitigating liability issues surrounding their employment. If you’d rather have a personal conversation with the Kelly Higher Education team, please reach out and we can discuss the unique challenges your institution may be experiencing.

Michael Plater, Ph.D. is a distinguished leader with 30+ years in academia, holding positions as university president, provost, dean, and professor. As vice president of Kelly Education, Dr. Plater is a strategic business partner to administrators at institutions of higher education. His passion is helping to solve the economic pressures of talent-related challenges for colleges and universities around the globe.

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