Adjunct professor Andrea Troncoso has over $130,000 in student debt, and, despite faithfully making payments for over a decade, the balance is only going up.

Though Troncoso works more than full-time hours at the Community College of Denver and Metropolitan State University, she is not considered a full-time professor because adjuncts are contract workers only paid for the time they spend inside of the classroom, not including time spent planning, grading and other activities. Troncoso said her low pay and crushing debt have made it impossible for her to own a car, save for retirement, or ever hope to buy a house.

Her adjunct status has also made Troncoso ineligible for federal student loan relief. 

“I live in constant fear that my loans will become too much to handle,” Troncoso said in written testimony to state lawmakers. “I worry that I will have a medical emergency and suddenly be in even more debt. I worry that my spouse will never be able to retire from his job because I can’t afford health insurance. ... I lie awake at night staring at my ceiling, wondering if I will ever be free.”

State lawmakers are trying to help adjunct professors like Troncoso through Senate Bill 84, which seeks to make adjunct professors eligible for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

If passed into law, the bill would multiply the hours worked by adjunct professors by 4.35 to meet the full-time employment requirements under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and, proponents said, to more accurately reflect the time they spend working. The federal program forgives the remaining balance of student debt for those who have worked in public service full-time and have made monthly payments on their loans for at least 10 years.

“We have a system built on the backs and the work of these adjunct professors,” said bill sponsor Sen. Janice Marchman, D-Loveland. “This bill is about equity and about ensuring that our hardworking adjuncts receive the critical student debt relief they’ve earned.”

Adjuncts make up 37% of Colorado higher education faculty, Marchman said.

That percentage increases to 75 to 80% for many community colleges, including Front Range Community College in Westminster and AIMS Community College in Greeley.

While adjuncts largely perform the same duties as their full-time colleagues — grading, planning lessons, meeting with students — they’re only paid for the time they spend in the classroom lecturing. As a result, adjuncts advocating for the bill said they are paid too little to pay off their student loans.

Sign up for free: News Alerts

Stay in the know on the stories that affect you the most.

Success! Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Dr. Nathanial Bork said he was never paid more than $23,000 a year while working as an adjunct professor in the community college system for seven years, even with a master’s degree. Felicia Brown, another master’s graduate and current adjunct professor at the Community College of Denver, said she only makes $22,000 a year, forcing her to live with roommates in her 30s and to put off necessities, such as getting dental work and buying new glasses.

“I don’t want to leave teaching, but as it is now, I can’t afford my own place or regular medical costs on top of student loans,” Brown said in written testimony.

The Senate Education Committee advanced the bill on Wednesday, voting 4-2 to send the bill to the full Senate for consideration. Only Republican Sens. Mark Baisley of Woodland Park and Janice Rich of Grand Junction voted against the measure.

Baisley said the testimony in support of the bill is “compelling,” but he raised issue with the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, seemingly disagreeing with the ethics of loan forgiveness itself.

“While this would help thousands of people, then the forgiveness of the loan has to be paid for by everyone else,” Baisley said. “I can’t, in good conscience, make it unfair to everyone else while we help these folks.” 

No residents or organizations testified in opposition to the bill Wednesday.

In addition to individual professors, the Colorado Education Association and American Federation of Teachers supported the bill, pointing to the benefits it could have on the education institution by helping colleges retain their adjunct professors.

Democratic lawmakers disavowed the current treatment of adjunct professors and promised to take action.

“That is inexcusable, in my opinion,” said Sen. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora. "They are working because they love to be educators and then we have these pitfalls. I’m thankful that this bill was brought forward so we can start making a dent in their loans, but we still have so far to go.”