Wednesday, October 18, 2006

 

Adjuncts and Retention

There's been a dustup this week about a forthcoming journal article about the relationship between adjunct teaching and graduation rates at two-year colleges. Having read the IHE and Chronicle accounts but not the journal article itself, it appears that the research has found a significant correlation between high adjunct percentages on the faculty and low graduation rates.

Most of us can rattle reasons off the top of our heads: lack of student advisement, lack of connection to campus culture, frequent turnover leading to relationships not forming, freeway fliers not having time to hold office hours. On the flip side, I suspect that the optimal number of adjuncts is non-zero, given the insights that working professionals in their fields can offer, and the inevitable semester-to-semester enrollment fluctuations that affect all but the very top tier schools (what a social scientist I knew once called “the squiggle”).

We can also easily fall into the predictable round-robin of claiming that a preference for full-time faculty constitutes a slap in the face to adjuncts, who are well-qualified and hard-working, and why don't they get credit too, and blah blah blah. The reason this debate perpetually goes nowhere is that it's the wrong debate. When looking at the trend toward adjuncts, don't look at adjuncts. Look at the institution hiring them.

Over at Cold Spring Shops, Stephen Karlson ups the ante by pointing to the pressure on adjuncts at many schools to get glowing (or at least non-complaining) student evaluations as a condition of contract renewal. Let the Darwinian process work itself out over the years, and you'll gradually get a dumbed-down level of teaching, presumably leading to higher fail rates. Unless, of course, the dumbed-down teaching occurs all the way through, at which point you'd presumably get lower fail rates. It's not clear to me why the former is obvious and the latter impossible. If anything, in my days at Proprietary U, it was an article of faith that if you staffed the faculty with enough people who passed enough students, retention would increase. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is another issue.) You may or may not pay a long-term price in prestige, but that's not the same thing.

I'd add another variable (which, to be fair, the actual scholarly article may or may not address). Beyond a certain minimum, you can probably take the percentage of adjunct faculty as a pretty good indicator of the financial health of a college. (This may not apply in very rural areas, or in colleges with very narrowly-focused missions.) Broadly speaking, the higher the adjunct percentage, the more the college is hurting financially. Since the study specifically looks at community colleges, for which the economics of the local community are broadly determinative of the economics of the college, I'd take the next step: when you're looking at the adjunct percentage of a community college, you're looking at the level of wealth of the community it inhabits (allowing some fluctuation for political climate, such as the presence or absence of a TABOR-like law).

If that's right, then what we're saying is that more affluent communities have higher graduation rates than less-affluent ones. Well, yeah. That holds true in the high schools; it seems plausible that it would continue to hold true in community colleges, since they're almost as place-specific as high schools are.

For reasons I still fail to understand, most community colleges don't have endowments in any meaningful sense. To the extent that we get private donations, they invariably go to student scholarships. I'm all for student scholarships, both for need and for merit, but I'm also for providing the funding base for a college to do its job right. Our operating funds come almost entirely from a combination of dedicated taxes and/or government subventions, and tuition.

To answer a perceptive question from Dr. Karlson, yes, community colleges generally price our tuition well below the market-clearing or profit-maximizing level. We do this deliberately, out of a sense of mission. Since cc's exist to provide access to higher education to those who otherwise might not have it, we struggle to keep tuition low enough for the struggling working single Mom to be able to afford to take classes. Does that mean that we leave money on the table sometimes, charging some folks much less than they would have been willing to pay? Yup. Could we conceivably use that money to, say, hire more full-time faculty? Yup. Would that make my life immeasurably easier? Yup.

Were it up to me, we'd take some pages from the four-year school playbook. We'd develop endowments for purposes other than scholarships, and use the interest income to improve the quality of what we do. We'd shift from 'everyday low prices' to a 'higher-price, higher-aid' strategy. (Obviously, that assumes a considerably streamlined financial aid system.) We might charge different tuition for different majors, based on the extraordinary differences in institutional cost between, say, Nursing clinicals and Intro to Sociology. We'd embrace merit aid, both out of general principle (let's tell high school kids that good grades, as well as a good jump shot, will pay off) and out of a realistic recognition that part of what makes a good education is good peers. Done properly, the wealthier kids would benefit from having another high-quality option, and the poorer would benefit by having a new high-quality option. Yes, there would be more financial aid paperwork, and that's a pain. But it strikes me as far less painful than the continued watering-down of the only option realistically available to many people.

This could all be wrong, of course, but I'm thinking some prospective Ed.d. could generate a pretty good research project out of it. Hint, hint...

Comments:
I like your suggestions and wish I lived in a world where at least part of the cost difference between the technical programs and the college-transfer programs was reflected in tuition. An alternative would be to have the college-transfer programs maximum class size be twice that of the Nursing clinical class size... I do think it is very unfair for the 60 students in Intro to Sociology to pay the same tuition rate as the 15 students in the Nursing Clinical...

As it is, on our campus, ANY move toward either or these options would be met with near hysteria... sigh.
 
thanks for this - I am forwarding your comments to my dean...
 
While you flesh out some of the factors at work, I feel you are, uncharacteristically, eliding over some significant factors at play here.

I have tried to begin a larger discussion. My take.
 
The money quote of IHE article is the ending! "Pay part-timers for their time on campus not just in the classroom!"

Yes, that would be wonderful. It will never happen. This is my last semester as an adjunct (my 10th semester)mainly because once you add in all the time I spend on class prep, grading, etc, I'm not making minumum wage.

My school will never pay adjuncts to spend time on campus because there's no place to put us all; there's over 400 adjuncts and 80 full-timers. Administrators just moved into the "ghetto office" that was shared by 10-15 adjuncts so I hold office hours when needed in a coffee shop. If they had to pay us for the time spent answering email, they'd go broke.
 
I suspect the real problem is that many of the adjunct teachers also have day jobs. That makes their teaching position less important unless they are "True Believers" that feel teaching is God Given or they have a gambling problem and one of the Sopranos are shaking them down. Even at the four year college level, teachers are brought in that have the academic creditials, but not the teaching savvy to communicate ideas and initiate interest. My kids are currently in a four year state school. My daughter still manages to have a 4.0 into her senior year and my son has a 3.6. Both of them have had bitter complaints about professors who had no idea that their lectures should have some relation to the exams and teaching assistant that spent more time agonizing about their own plight than in actually teaching the class. In all of the above cases, students across the board slammed them in reviews, but the school continues to rehire them every year. The results are that students avoid the departments in which these teachers teach key core classes. That in turn hurts the school in the long run. You get what you pay for. If you really want a top notch group of graduates you need at least a core group of full time professionals who make it their job to teach their courses. Anything less is a waste of money for the school, and for the student.
 
With a very few exceptions of adjuncts brought in from the business community to teach specialty classes, I've never met an adjunct who chose to have another job. All the adjuncts I know scramble to get more classes because they are underpaid and unable to work full-time at one place. The scrambling often keeps them from staying as up in their field as full-time faculty, but that's also true in places where people have rally heavy teaching loads.
 
I know lots of adjuncts with other jobs, heck with actual careers, and they can be hit and miss just like 'purely academic' adjuncts. Sometimes I think they are exactly what the course requires - (theoretically) who better to teach about environmental policy than someone who works for an environmental policy lobby group?

I agree with ummm about that quote, if I were paid for anywhere near the hours I actually work I would hold more office hours, spend more time tracking down fantastic material and prepping even more interesting lectures. Even better I could actually advise the students interested in my area of teaching, as it stands they are out if luck if they want help in this area; there isn't anyone who could advise an honours thesis in this area for example. This could improve retention.

On the other hand you would create a three-tiered system of faculty that might be more bizarre than the current two-tier one. Can you imagine pitting adjuncts against each other for two types of positions, one better paid, more like a 'real' job, with more status? The Uni would love to take advantage of the extra work people in the lowest positions would do to gain acces to the new tier, but departments would hate having yet another request for funding to justify! Most probably depts would be told to cut a couple of adjuncts to fund these new positions and that would not serve students very well because it would further narrow their course choices. It sounds like a big mess that really pleases no one!
 
"given the insights that working professionals in their fields can offer"

That is the administrative fantasy, that adjuncts are busy professionals who give up a few evenings to teaching.

What about the adjuncts teaching your English, composition, math, history, etc.? Adjunct teaching is their job.

And what are you paying them?

signed
Not an adjunct anymore...
 
I always swore I would never have a blog and never answer one, yet here I am.

I am an adjunct at two places. And I am on my last month of one place where I have taught for ten years.

Retention--now we are replaced. Full time faculty should teach freshman. Retention rates are better.

Perhaps though these full time faculty should be qualified.

I can add and subtract and I know where Kansas and Korea are. But no one lets me teach arithemetic or Geography.

Yet anyone, it appears, anyone at all, can teach writing.

Full time....

And I choose to be an adjunct...No full time work for me. I choose to work with my students, not go to faculty meetings. I choose to have a life and make money somewhere else.

But still my college is getting rid of me...

One month to go....

Retention....I wonder if the students leave who they will find to adjunct for the adjuncts they did not retain....
 
Hello,

I recently published an article on the dangers and benefits of student loans and other forms of college financial aid – here is a quote from it, in case you are interested:
Student loans repayment can be a real nightmare without adopting some strategies that would help the new graduates to organize their social and financial life. Here are some strategies they can use to do this:
- An additional part-time job;
- Freelancing is another option (meaning that they can do particular pieces of work for different organisations, without working all the time for a single organisation);
- They should try to keep their living expenses as low as possible (live in a smaller apartment, live with a roommate to share some of the expenses, find an apartment that is closer to the job, to eliminate the extra-expenses for transport etc.);
- To apply for forbearance (this is an immediate solution for hard times when the new graduate is in impossibility to re-pay the amount of money and the need for student loan consolidation becomes apparent; it is a temporary period, when the graduate can postpone or delay his or her re-payments until a later time on a federal or direct loan after the beginning of the re-payment, and when the student doesn’t qualify for deferral). The forbearance must be applied through the lenders of the loans.
- To consolidate the payments.
If you feel this helps, please drop by my website for additional information, such as federal student loans information or additional resources on private student loans .

Regards,

Michael
 
This is my 21st year of teaching as an adjunct. I routinely get the highest evaluations from my students, recruit the largest classes, generate high student credit hours. And yet, I remain the bastard step-child of the institution.
What is worse than the out-right looking-down-the-nose-at are FT faculty who claim to champion my cause. As if I am not capable of speaking for myself, lowly creature that I am.
And yet, I remain. I clearly do not continue to do it for the money. I do it for the opportunity to change lives, to provide critical thinking skills, and to offer an alternative future for our largely working class student body.
Yes, I am really that idealistic, and it is precisely that hope I bring with me to the classroom.
 
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