Colleges' Reliance on Part-time Faculty: Who Wins? Who Loses?

I’m spending tens of thousands of dollars on a college education, and my kid is going to be taught by adjuncts?! This can’t be good …

Before adding my own perspective to this important, ongoing discussion — and in a spirit of full disclosure — I want to say that I have recently accepted a one-year position as a part-time faculty member, with both teaching and administrative responsibilities at a large, private university. Since 2010, I’ve taught three different graduate courses as a part-time adjunct professor at this same university. Much of my research focuses on higher education finance, with a particular eye toward how colleges and universities spend money. My views are obviously colored by my own experiences as a part-time faculty member, as well as by my research on college spending.

To be clear, adjuncts are part-time faculty who are hired to teach one or more courses in a semester or academic year. Quite a bit has already been discussed about part-time faculty, including scholarly publications and reports, a recent Doonesbury comic, a piece on the PBS News Hour, and a number of articles and op-eds in leading U.S. newspapers and magazines.

Facts About Part-Time Faculty

If there is one trend that is consistent across all types of colleges and universities — public and private, large and small, community and four-year — it’s the increase in the numbers of part-time faculty. As Dan Edmonds reported earlier in 2015, the percentage of college faculty that are part-time increased from 30 to 51 percent between 1975 and 2011. And while there is variation across institutions of higher education, adjuncts are essentially everywhere.

Here are some basic facts about part-time faculty in the 2013-14 academic year that I compiled from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2013 Fall Staff Survey:

  • Community colleges have the highest percentage of adjuncts — 65 percent of their faculty are part time.
  • Universities that are classified as research institutions by The Carnegie Classification employed the lowest percentage of part-time faculty, at 32 percent. In colleges where the highest degree offered is a bachelor’s, 41 percent of all faculty were part time compared to 48 percent at institutions whose highest degree is a master’s.
  • The amount of tuition and fees that colleges and universities charge students doesn’t really impact the percentage of part-time faculty. For example, I excluded community colleges, ranked all four-year colleges and universities based on the tuition they charge, and placed them in four categories from high to low. About 37 percent of faculty in colleges with the highest sticker prices were part time; 40 percent of faculty in the schools with the lowest tuitions were part time.
  • The percentage of part-time faculty at the 10 universities with the highest tuition and fees in 2013 ranged from 67 percent at Sarah Lawrence College to 3 percent at Bucknell University.

The Mix of Teaching Assistants and Adjuncts

Research universities include many large state schools like the University of Michigan or Penn State, as well as private institutions like Harvard or Emory University. As it turns out, these schools tend to rely heavily on graduate teaching assistants (TAs), who typically have considerably less instructional experience than adjuncts. Indeed, if we look again at the data from 2013, including TAs in the mix changes the faculty picture dramatically in some cases. Overall, 48 percent of instructors in research universities are either part time or graduate teaching assistants. When TAs are removed, this figure falls to 32 percent. (To learn about the percentage of part-time faculty and TAs at other U.S. colleges and universities, follow this link.)

Let’s look at some concrete examples to illustrate these points. The table below includes several public and private research universities and the tuition they charge, the percentage of faculty who work part time, and the percentage who are either part time or graduate teaching assistants.
enter image description NOTE: In-state tuition and fees are reported for public universities.

The extent to which research universities use graduate students as teaching assistants varies, but they all use them. At George Washington University, for instance, faculty are predominantly part time. When TAs are considered, 61 percent of the teaching staff is either part-time faculty or graduate assistants — and note that the tuition at George Washington is among the highest in the country.

To take another example, the profile for the University of California-Berkeley is similar to that of other universities in the UC system. That is, the percentage of part-time faculty is relatively low, but when TAs are added to the mix, the amount exceeds 50 percent across all campuses.

The Reality of Adjunct Earnings

Why have the numbers of part-time faculty increased at essentially all colleges and universities? This shift is one of the steps higher education institutions have taken to save money. Part-time instructors are generally paid on a per-course basis — and they rarely receive benefits. A 2012 survey of part-time faculty conducted by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found that the average pay an adjunct received for a three-credit course was about $2,700. The number of courses that full-time faculty teach varies from university to university, but, for the sake of argument, let’s say that a professor teaches six courses per year. A part-time faculty member with an identical course load would make only $16,200 in an academic year if she was paid $2,700 a course. This fact helps to explain why 31 percent of adjuncts live close to or below the poverty line.

Of course, some part-time faculty have other non-college jobs and simply teach “on the side.” But many are seeking full-time academic employment and see their part-time teaching as a possible stepping stone to the increasingly rare full-time, tenure-track position.

Part-Time Faculty and Students

You may wonder what difference it makes if students are taught by part-time faculty. There are indeed a number of studies that attempt to address this question, but results are more or less mixed. Some research has shown a negative impact on student retention and graduation, while others have found positive impacts. None of the research shows an overwhelming difference in either direction.

Sadly, colleges and universities generally do not assess what students actually learn (nor from whom), so we have no idea if students learn more or less from part-time faculty (or from full professors, lecturers, or graduate students, for that matter). There is, of course, no guarantee that a full-time, tenured professor who is nationally known is a good teacher. And, unfortunately, quite a few new Ph.Ds who land academic jobs have typically had no instruction on how to teach.

The Importance of Time, Space, and Institutional Knowledge

Given the data, the studies, and my own experiences, I believe that the availability of part-time faculty to meet and interact with students is much more of a problem than their teaching. Adjuncts are often not provided office space, which makes meeting with students outside of class difficult. And some instructors teach at multiple colleges — often out of financial necessity — which makes scheduling appointments even more problematic.

Adjuncts are typically less familiar with the requirements for majors or other courses taught in their departments, hindering their ability to advise students successfully. In surveys of part-time faculty, instructors themselves acknowledge that these factors limit their ability to work with students effectively.

The Overall Effect of Adjuncts on Students

The collective impact of part-time faculty also needs to be considered. Having one, or even two, part-time faculty members in a semester may not be bad — indeed, it may even be good. After all, part-time faculty are sometimes brought in because they have expertise in a particular area that full-time faculty don’t. Part-time faculty who work outside of universities also bring perspective and experience into the classroom that differs from that of academics who may have gone straight from graduate school into higher education.

That said, having a majority of part-time instructors all at once could be problematic, particularly for those who are in their first year of higher education. Student interactions with faculty are related to a number of positive educational outcomes, including better grades and staying enrolled in college. And for reasons that are often not the fault of part-time faculty themselves, these instructors typically interact with students less.

Moreover, too many adjuncts in a department can present problems for students who want to pursue graduate education. I’ll never forget the job candidate I interviewed years ago who was completing her Ph.D. in economics at a well-regarded university. She had earned her bachelor’s degree in the same discipline from another respected institution, but she had had so many part-time instructors in her major that there were few tenured faculty she could approach for letters of recommendation when she applied to doctoral programs.

Dilemma for Universities

I’ve obviously presented a mixed picture about part-time faculty. Universities gain considerably (they save lots of money) through the use of adjuncts. Students aren’t necessarily harmed; on the one hand, part-time faculty can provide a “value-added” component in that colleges can bring in individuals with specialties and experiences that full-time faculty do not have. On the other, adjuncts simply aren’t around campus much because of the lack of office space and other professional commitments.

As things currently stand, the harm falls largely on the part-time faculty member. Ridiculously low pay, lack of office space, and little or no integration into the department all create less-than-optimal working conditions.

Here’s the disconnect: A college charges over $40,000 for tuition and fees, and perhaps their adjuncts are paid about $4,000 a course, give or take. Yes, college tuitions have risen astronomically, and colleges and universities do need to cut expenses (a major focus of some of my earlier work). Schools would certainly be spending a lot more if they were not using part-time instructors to teach. But should these faculty bear the brunt?

If you wonder where I come down on this question in the end — I think the Atlantic article got it right: There is no excuse for how universities treat adjuncts.

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