Thursday, April 24, 2008


Sticker Shock and Smart Shopping

This time of year, community colleges suddenly get a lot more attractive.

High school seniors who applied to college for the coming Fall got their notifications and aid awards – if any – by or around April 15. Depending on the school, they usually have until May 1 or May 15 to respond.

So the stretch from mid-April to mid-May is a very big deal for us. This is when students – and their parents – who wouldn't have considered us before suddenly look seriously at the local cc. The aid package wasn't what they thought it would be, or they didn't get into the first or second choice school, or family or life circumstances have changed. Suddenly, the prospect of taking transferable gen ed credits for low tuition while living at home doesn't seem so bad. Getting a couple of years under your belt without taking on backbreaking levels of student loan debt has a certain logic to it.

Cc's as a group suffer from the old Groucho Marx line about never joining a club that would accept you as a member. If you judge quality by exclusivity, then any open-admissions college has to suck, by definition. But we're finding that increasing numbers of people with other options are choosing cc's. (One sign of that is the plummeting average age of students at cc's. Every year, our student body gets more and more traditional.) Other than cost, why would they do that?

In a word, specialization.

Most cc's – in my state, all of them – focus exclusively on the first two years. We don't teach anything above the 200 level. That means that our full-time faculty teach intro courses. That may not sound like much, but the way the adjunct trend plays out at the midtier four-year colleges usually means that the intro courses are farmed out to adjuncts, while the plum upper-level courses are guarded jealously by the full-time faculty. So if you start at a cc and transfer after two years, you get the best of both worlds, and do it for less money.

That's not to say that nothing is lost. Most cc's don't have dorms, so that part of the 'college experience' isn't there. But plenty of students commute to four-year campuses, too. If the choice is between a cc and, say, Swarthmore, then I have to concede the point. But if it's between commuting to a cc and commuting to Compass Direction State College, cc's are often pretty competitive.

The competitiveness increases, I think, as the four-year schools outsource progressively more of their teaching to adjuncts. It also increases as tuition increases, as travel costs increase, and as security concerns increase. There's something comforting in having the kids close to home.

In some cases, the cultural stigma is still there, and that's not to be sneezed at. But if the financial aid package from Nothing Special State wasn't what you expected, it may be worth looking past the stereotype. There's no shame in smart shopping.

Also, there are statistics that show CC transfers often have higher graduation rates and GPAs than students who start at 4-year schools.

Of course, statistics can and often do lie -- but, since CCs are in the business of educating the first two years, they also generally have more academic support services. These services are really important, as many high school graduates aren't ready for college. Supposing some of that academic support pays off, the statistics about CC students transfer success makes sense.
Ok, yesterday you wrote this:
"But an adjunct who does a good job in the classroom – which most do – does a good job in the classroom. As long as that's happening, I don't see an accreditation issue. A union issue, yes. A political issue, yes. An accreditation issue, no."

This assertion implies (though correct me if I'm wrong) that the reason you don't think that adjunctification is an accreditation issue is because it has nothing to do with the quality of education that a student receives in the classroom.

But then today you wrote this:
"Most cc's – in my state, all of them – focus exclusively on the first two years. We don't teach anything above the 200 level. That means that our full-time faculty teach intro courses. That may not sound like much, but the way the adjunct trend plays out at the midtier four-year colleges usually means that the intro courses are farmed out to adjuncts, while the plum upper-level courses are guarded jealously by the full-time faculty. So if you start at a cc and transfer after two years, you get the best of both worlds, and do it for less money."

And this:
"The competitiveness [of CCs] increases, I think, as the four-year schools outsource progressively more of their teaching to adjuncts."

So which is it? it seems to me that if having full-time faculty teach those intro courses is such a lure for students that the market is telling us something about quality, or at the very least about a perception of what counts as quality. If adjunct teaching is the same as non-adjunct teaching, then why would not having adjuncts be attractive for students in the first two years? And if it's NOT the same, then shouldn't it be an accreditation issue?

[Note: I'm not saying all adjuncts are bad teachers or some other nonsense. I'm only pointing out that structural inequities do have an impact on what happens in the classroom and out between students and faculty, and I'd argue that what DD describes today bears this out.]
Generally, I'm seeing what you're seeing--more traditional-aged students in the CC classroom, and largely for the reasons you mention. But my state, an awful lot of adjuncts (including, for a couple more months, me) are teaching those transferable classes at CC's. So do the tenured faculty, but in English, adjuncts outnumber them; in my department, the ratio is 1:4. (Granted, the tenured faculty may be teaching three or four classes while an adjunct has one, two, or none, but that's still a lot of adjuncts. And the tenured faculty teach almost all the 200-level classes.)
Do you really think the general "consumer" even knows about adjunctification? My guess would be no, they don't, but maybe I'm wrong.
For all of the words about how adjuncts aren't really that bad, this post leaves a bad taste in my sustained-by-adjuncting craw. I do NOT agree that adjuncts teaching first and second year classes is always a bad thing, and being a tenured 'expert' in your area doesn't mean that you are a good teacher. I would argue that most of the adjuncts I know are probably better teachers than many full time tt or tenured faculty because if we aren't good teachers we don't get re-hired, so we bring it every damn class. Yeah, okay, for some that means pandering for good evaluations but for the vast majority that it means working hard to be up-to-date in the field, knowing the literature really well and working like hell to be a solid instructor; being fair but fun, rigorous with supports in place so that people actually learn the material, and spending extra time with students because they really are the 100% focus of our jobs.

I get a little sick of the simple assumption that we aren't the best people to teach first and second year students. Why the hell not? I taught a second year course for years and I'm proud of the job I did preparing those students for the shock of third year, and I AM an expert in that field, more so than the FT tenured faculty member that I took over from.

Besides, the logic of this argument carries through to saying that adjuncts should only teach third and fourth year courses. Really? Shouldn't these years be when students are making contact with tenured professors who are experts in the field, people who have the clout to write them reference letters that count? I can't tell you how many times I've cautioned students that my reference letter won't count as much as a tenured person's, and how many times they just don't know anyone with tenure or even TT to even ask because the only class they've ever taken from a FT, tenured person had 100 students in it. That's hardly fair on them (or on me, either, who writes several letters of reference every year without getting paid for it and no guarantee that any committee will pay them a blind bit of notice after they see that I'm an adjunct).

What is the answer? I don't know but I'm a bit sick of being characterized as unqualified to teach certain years of students just because I don't have a full time job.
In DD's defense, how he thinks of and speaks of adjuncts changes according to which hat he is wearing. If he's in pure adminsitrator mode, then he can be callous -- an adjunct is simply a warm body with a terminal degree who can be bought on the cheap to ensure the class runs. But I think he (DD) does this as a performative gensture, as a way to mirror the general administrative attitude towards adjuncts. At other times, though, he seems to be at once sympathetic to our plight, and quite aware that we can be, and often are exemplary instructors.

But, that said, it's not all peaches and cream. I suspect DD would lay us all off in a heartbeat if it meant he could replace us with tenure track hires. (I kinda' doubt he would look to promote from within)
Dr. C -- I don't see the contradiction. My objection to using adjunct percentages in accreditation reports is that they're an indirect measure of student learning. I prefer direct measures. If the students are learning, then the college is doing its job, whether with adjuncts or not. Use a direct measure rather than an indirect one; outcomes, rather than inputs.

Traditionally, one of the perceived advantages of four-year colleges was that they relied much less on adjuncts than cc's do. While that's obviously an indirect measure, it's also becoming less true. So even if you relied on that to make a decision, it wouldn't necessarily be dispositive.

As to my attitude on the adjunct trend, I'll say that the kinds of ill-founded attacks I get on the topic sometimes discourage me from bringing it up at all. As anybody who has read me for any length of time knows, I object to the trend on the grounds of fairness. Period. (I have the same objection to tenure, and it's not a contradiction. I reject both 'impunity' and 'insecurity.' I favor accountability, both individual and institutional.)
Two separate issues; please allow me to use an anology from the industrial revolution to make a point (yes, yes, I automatically cede that cafeteria food in a modern university is substantively different from that in a modern factory; and most corporations don't have football teams).

You have the related dimensions of Quality and Productivity.

The "organized labor" assumption is that you have to sacrifice one for the other; you can only get Quality if you use highly paid, highly skilled, full time, salaried artisans with protected jobs (FT/TT Professors).

If the "company" goes to paying a piece rate to temps/on calls (Adjuncts) then Quality will necessarily suffer; but "Management" will then argue that Productivity goes up- as the piece rate workers are motivated to generate as much output as they can.

The "trade off" in classical labor theory is specious. The issues of Quality vs. Productivity with respect to full time tenured salary vs. part time piece rate are indeed separable.

Think Doctors in private practice.

Would you rather have your heart bypass surgery done by the person who does one per month . . . or 100 per month?

Our students- and the taxpaying public- deserve BOTH quality AND productivity.

(p.s. is now the time to bring in the issue of distance learning schools and accreditation agencies?)
To Dean Dad (7:52 AM):
You say "I prefer direct measures." Please develop a blog or three on the direct measures you find provide a good assessment of learning, and how that correlates with f-t, t-t, and adjunct faculty teaching the class. (See my 7:04 AM comment yesterday and the 9:30 am comment yesterday on IHE for details. I am using f-t to mean tenured, t-t to mean still tenure track, adjunct to mean non t-t so it includes those on a yearly contract.)

To meansomething (6:17 AM):
I just looked up our offerings for 1st semester composition for the fall. (Wow are there a LOT of sections!) Since we never put adjuncts in there this early, I can say that 47% of them are being taught by f-t or t-t faculty. That could be an underestimate because I'm pretty sure we are hiring someone in that area.
When I was in a position to witness the inner workings of both a community college and a four year university for the general education courses (i.e. when I was in grad school and teaching adjunct), the main qualitative difference that I observe was class size.

A student would attend the university and find themselves in a 150-600 (yes, 600) student class. Maybe the instructor was tenured, more likely on tenure-track, or maybe the instructor was an adjunct, or maybe the instructor was one of the graduate students.

If the student went to a community college s/he might have that same adjunct, who might still be adjunct or full-time at the cc, or graduate student or even one of the teaching assistants as the instructor there. That is to say that the course and quality of instruction was essentially the same.

The difference was that the student was in a class of no more than 25 or 30, could actually hear the instructor, ask questions, feel less alienated, and more often than not have a fighting chance of passing. Plus, the price was much lower.
Now we're on to something!

Assume FT/TT @ $100,000/yr (sorry liberal arts majors) + the liability of retirement benefits. On a 3/2 load, that works out to be $20,000 *direct cost* per class.

Assume adjunct @ $5,000 per class.

Break-even class size for the adjunct vs. break-even class size for the FT/TT?

We actually publish each year the "Cost/Benfit" numbers for each faculty member here at Compass Heading U. For a FT/TT professor to "break even" you need at least 30 bodies per class. For an adjunct, it works out to 8 per class.

In order to generate revenue at a profitable level, a college composed entirely of adjunct could get away with class sizes in the 20-30 range. For a college of all FT/TT, that needs to be increased to 50-70.

So under what model does the student benefit?

A small class taught by a dedicated adjunct?

Or a large class taught by research/service/I've already got tenure and I don't care full timer?

No, the anti-adjunct argujment certainly isn't driven by concern for het quality of education.

So what is it driven by?

Sober introspection please.

Cui Bono . . .
I am and have been a "dedicated adjunct." I have taught some great classes, worked my tail off, cared greatly for my students. But even at $5,000/class, I have to teach too many classes to provide top-quality instruction in all of them. (Remember, in most adjuncting situations I have to buy my own health insurance, sock away my own retirement with no matching funds from my institution, and courseloads are not guaranteed, so I feel pressure to take on as much as I'm offered in a given term, since there may not be enough the next time.) I'm working at multiple institutions, which reduces my ability to be deeply involved in the curricular and extracurricular worlds of any single institution.

These are some of the reasons heavy reliance on adjuncts might reduce teaching quality: not that we adjuncts aren't great teachers, but that the situation is working against us. And by the way, I've never been paid $5K as an adjunct at a CC or four-year college. Try $1500-$4000. Teaching graduate classes as an adjunct, the pay is much better, but I suspect that situation is much more rare.
Ha! I was going to say $5000 per class? Sign me up! My rang is betwen $2300 on the low side and $3800 on the highest.
Second Line:
I was going to say the same thing about the 100 k$/year salary, but I know that neither rate is unusual at major university with high tuition. Our CC has a hard time competing for adjuncts with the higher pay at a nearby university.

The "breakeven" calculation implies that the Directional State University in question charges around $200 to $210 per semester hour for in-state tuition. If your school charges enough tuition that 5 students are paying your salary, you need to be sure your students know where their money is not going!

By the way, if that prof is making $100,000 in salary (direct cost), that means fringe benefits plus retirement run to $140 - 150,000 or so. That raises the breakeven class size into the 30s. If it is the total cost to the college, then the salary is in the mid 60s, which I consider unlikely for good old Compass Heading U.
Another important discussion about adjuncts. But again, we lose sight of the fact that an "adjunct" position should be a position that is in addition to your full-time job. I realize many of you have turned adjuncting into a full-time job, but once again, that is a choice you have made, and then insist that the schools, who did not force you into that situation, "pay the price."

As for faculty earning 100K+, I suspect the unspoken bit from "Yet another confused professor" is that the Tenured, or Tenure Track professors are bringing in consulting/research funding as well, which is helpful not only in supplementing salaries, but also in generating both revenue and reputation for "Compass Heading U."

That said, we drag far-afield of the discussion started by Dean Dad. Simply put--he posits that the value (quality relative to price) of the education is what is driving more "traditional" students to the CC. I would posit that, while that MAY be true, it is perhaps just as likely that today's "educational consumer" doesn't understand the quality component.

How is a high school student, or their parent who has never attended college, to evaluate the educational quality received at a community college vs a SLAC or "Big State U?" Perhaps they rely on standardized entrance tests (selectivity in--quality out?) Or maybe they rely on US News and World Report rankings.

Or maybe they see a ticket requiring a "punch" and assume any ticket-puncher would work. "Any ticket puncher" then means "cheaper community college."
My salary is ~ 100 K$ for nine months. My school is not an R1 but it is not an Rnothing either. I call the species the Not Research Habituated University. I teach one General Chemistry section with ~80 students broken into three recitations. That works out to six contact hours per week for two terms. It's a bit low for such places

I bring in ~ 1.5 times my salary in overhead, 2x my salary in student support and 1 month of my summer salary. The other month I get by consulting and in the third month I rest (not really). My grants also support research faculty.

My gripe, such as it is, is that I am not that far ahead of colleagues who bring in no support. Research without research support is expensive onanism.
First Point:
"Research without research support is . . . "

The result of a *genuine* (not publish or perish spewery) intellectual curiosity?

Well, I guess that depends on what kind of research you are doing!

Point Second:
Using "Compass Heading U" as the benchmark- College of Business Administration- AACSB Salary Survey for Assistant Professors right out of Terminal Degree Factory- $100k+ direct 9 month salary for FT/TT not including research funding @ $10k internal/$50k external; not including summer teaching @ $12k per semester capped at 3/12 above and beyond. Oh and consider the 3/5 teaching schedule $100k cost does not take into account 20 hrs/week of TA covered by the university (said TA doing most of the "drudge" work). And you wonder why breakeaven class size at Big State U is upwards of 50 students per class? And for adjuncts @ $5k per class is significantly smaller? Like around 10 per class?
One more time: working as an adjunct is not a choice, not when very entry level professional/corporate position I apply to rejects me for being "over qualified." A that point, adjuncting becomes a necessity.
That last analysis by yacp is just what I was recommending DD take a look at in another thread in a parallel discussion over on DD's IHE version of this blog. When I saw that my comments there would be too long for that venue, I chose to write a very long blog entry to address a string of rhetorical questions about the role of faculty in setting class size and number of sections offered at a college. It also digressed into issues discussed here, so some of you might find it interesting to read and/or flame it.
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