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Income inequality on campuses: Getting organized helps!

Nearly a quarter-million of the support staff who work at colleges and universities in the U.S. live in poverty, according to a new NEA Almanac of Higher Education report, while pay for public college presidents climbed to an average $428,000 in 2014.

Talk about income inequality in America: “Presidential compensation packages continue to rise well above ESP [education support professionals] salary increases and poverty levels,” notes Almanac author Vicki Rosser, a professor and higher education program coordinator at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

For example, take the University of Connecticut (UConn), the flagship public university in a state where more than one in 10 higher-ed ESPs and academic staff members are living in poverty, Rosser found.

UConn’s president took home $575,000 in 2014.

Or, consider the University of New Mexico, where the president was paid $385,000 in 2014. Last year, higher-ed ESP pay declined 4.6 percent in that state, and it now has the highest proportion of ESPs living below the federal poverty line.

While you might not know it from their pay, the jobs that these campus staffers do are critical to keeping institutions running and students learning: They process student financial aid and admissions; keep textbooks and resources circulating in college libraries; work and innovate as campus technology experts and STEM lab researchers; and maintain the facilities that students and faculty require, and more.

The answer for many of these essential—but often overlooked—employees is this: Get organized. As members of a union, professional staff and ESPs can get a seat at the table where the decisions are made.

At Michigan State University (MSU), thanks to their power at the bargaining table, the MSU APA (Academic Professionals Association) won a four-year wages and benefits contract in 2013 that provides for pay increases every year (2.5 percent in 2015, plus 3 percent for those near the bottom of their pay scales) as well as fully funded healthcare that means no premiums for single or family plans. On average, the union’s more than 2,500 members earn a little more than $57,000 a year.

“There is no doubt that the quality of life that somebody has by being organized is greatly enhanced,” says MSU APA President Maury Koffman, also an NEA Executive Committee member. (And did we mention retirement? The MSU APA contract requires MSU to match 2-to-1 its employees’ contributions to their retirement funds.)

It’s no wonder that the number of unionized higher-ed staff in the U.S. grew by more than 300 this month, as three new staff unions at Keene State College (KSC) voted to join NEA-New Hampshire.

“Organizing a union gives us a voice,” said KSC organizing committee member Marcia Barrett. “It guarantees us a seat at the table, and gives us the ability to stand up for the dignity of our colleagues and to sustain the caring community we have here at Keene State.”

Staff facing layoffs, too.

Of course, higher-ed ESPs aren’t the only underpaid employees on college campuses. The wages earned by adjunct or contingent faculty, who account for 1.3 million of the nation’s 1.8 million faculty, also are atrocious. Overall, faculty salaries have declined 1 percent over the past five years, according to the recently published 2016 Special Salary Issue of the NEA Advocate.

But making matters worse for many higher-ed staff members is the one-two punch of poor pay plus layoffs. In Illinois, where zero state dollars have been delivered to public colleges and universities since July 1, 2015, nearly 200 non-instructional staff members have received layoff notices at Eastern Illinois University this year.

Meanwhile, in Maine, the Universities of Maine Professional Staff Association (UMPSA) has seen more than 100 academic staff members lose their jobs over the past couple of years, says UMPSA President Neil Greenberg. At the same time, some new positions have been added, but mostly for less experienced employees earning much less pay.

Greenberg notes that, compared to faculty layoffs, university staff layoffs rarely make headlines.

Rosser also notes that higher-ed staff don’t leave with the “golden parachute” that college presidents typically enjoy. “I’m getting a little tired of it as a faculty member, and I can only imagine how a staff person feels,” she says.


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