The precipitous rise in contingent faculty has been a cause for alarm among aspiring academics, but it should raise concerns among prospective students, as well.
Contingent faculty — often referred to as adjuncts, though other non–tenure track faculty (NTTF) are including in this broader classification — are becoming more common at schools across the country. In 2011, 51 percent of college faculty were part-timers, and another 19 percent were NTTF who worked full-time. The vast majority of faculty were, in other words, contingent.
The prevalence of adjuncts, who are underpaid and overscheduled, has a negative effect on the quality of education. Research has demonstrated that students who take classes taught by contingent faculty tend to have lower graduation rates; they are also less likely to transfer to four-year schools from two-year programs. Here are just a few of the ways in which student education quality may be compromised:
1. Hiring high-quality candidates is difficult. Because of poor or no benefits, below-market wages, and little scheduling control, schools have a difficult time attracting and retaining high-quality adjunct instructors.
2. Teaching conditions are less than desirable. Many adjuncts work multiple jobs to subsist, and they often lack offices and other resources to be able to provide key support to students.
3. Course content may be predetermined. Adjuncts are often limited in their freedom to create their own syllabi and may be forced to use course materials that they are unfamiliar or unhappy with.
4. Classes are often staffed at the last minute. With little time to prepare, even the most dedicated adjuncts may struggle to develop thoughtful, engaging curricula.
What You Can Do
With college tuition significantly outpacing inflation, you want to ensure that the school you’re working so hard to gain admission to — and pay for — will provide a quality education.
When institutions are more supportive of their NTTF, they have a greater opportunity to deliver high-quality education to their students. I recommend that, as you research potential colleges and universities, you look into what percent of their faculty are contingent faculty, and how those faculty are treated.
One great resource for independent research is the Adjunct Project, which provides a database of self-reported information from adjunct professors and other contingent faculty at institutions across the country. Particularly useful among the data points provided are the median salary per class taught, which is helpfully compared with other colleges in the same state and across the country. Additionally, the site has data on health insurance, retirement, and working conditions that can give you a comparative sense of how NTTF faculty are treated at a particular school. Those data are even available at the department level.
With that said, there are two important caveats. First, the data are all self-reported, so be particularly cautious if the numbers seem unusually high or low, especially if there are only a handful of reports for a given school. And second, because the site relies on self-reported data, the information is spotty at some schools. Nonetheless, the Adjunct Project provides a good, growing database of information that can give you a sense of how NTTF are treated at a wide range of schools.
Ideally, you should couple this research with a more direct line of questioning to the schools you’re most interested in learning more about. The American Federation of Teachers has an excellent list of questions to ask a representative from colleges you’re interested in. If a school is standoffish about answering these questions, I’d advise pushing back and making it clear that the treatment of NTTF is an important factor you’ll be weighing in comparing schools. The better that a school’s contingent faculty are treated, the better they will perform.
And, ideally, you want a school that doesn’t rely on NTTF for too many classes. While there are many excellent, high-quality instructors among contingent faculty members, they simply aren’t given the same resources and opportunities to succeed as their tenure-track counterparts.