Sunday, April 03, 2016


A Real Choice

If you haven’t seen Tim Burke’s latest, check it out.

Budgets look different at the Swarthmores of the world than at most community colleges.  That said, his recent piece on budgets holds true for both.  It’s about the use of strategic ignorance around budgeting to avoid confronting unpleasant realities.  

It got me thinking about some of the choices that tight budgets force.  Honest discussions of those choices would cut across the usual battle lines, which may be part of the reason that honest discussions are so rare.

To take an obvious case, and one that Burke alludes to: we know that smaller class sizes are generally better for students, as long as you have critical mass.  (A public speaking class with one student isn’t ideal.)  And we know that in the aggregate, students who have more full-time professors are likelier to complete than students who have large numbers of adjunct professors.

But I’ve never seen a serious attempt to weigh one against the other.  In other words, assuming that you could afford one but not both, which is better?  Is it better to have more and smaller sections, at the cost of more adjuncts, or is it better to keep the full-time percentage high, even at the cost of larger classes?

I could imagine either being true, but the key word there is “imagine.”  The ideas aren’t usually presented against each other in public discussion, but they’re directly opposed when developing budgets.  Given limited money, on which is it better to spend?  Dodging the question means leaving it to others to decide.  

I’ve seen people do somersaults to avoid answering questions like those.  “Cut administration instead” sounds good until you look at the actual savings -- nowhere close to what’s needed -- and the work that doesn’t go away when the people do.  It also assumes a level of bloat or growth that simply doesn’t exist in this sector.  It’s an evasion rather than an answer.

We could jack up tuition, but that comes with costs, too.  At a really basic level, tuition increases put more of a burden on students, many of whom are already struggling.  They also tend to annoy the elected officials at the county and state levels who decide on our operating support; jack up tuition too much, and they’re likely to respond with offsetting decreases.  High tuition flies in the face of the mission of a community college; Swarthmore is immune to that, but we’re not.  And at some point, elasticity of demand is likely to set in -- raise tuition too much, and you stop raising revenue, either because you’re giving more back in financial aid or you’re getting fewer students.  Plenty of private colleges have maxed out on tuition as a revenue source, judging by their discount rates.

And that’s before even mentioning the rate of increase of health insurance costs, which have the same effect on the budget that termites have on a house.  Any serious proposal for more full-time employees -- faculty, staff, or admin -- needs to account for that.

Culturally, there’s a tendency in higher ed to deny the concept of opportunity cost.  Instead, it’s easier to behave as if budgetary constraints are either imaginary or a symptom of not trying hard enough.  But they’re real, even in states that aren’t quite as far gone as, say, Illinois.  We’ve coped through a combination of wishful thinking, denial, buying time, and infighting.  I’d rather try a strategy of coming to grips with reality, even if that sometimes means having some awkward conversations.

So, I’ll start.  Has anyone seen actual data contrasting the “smaller sections with more adjuncts” strategy to the “larger sections with more full-timers?”  If so, how did it turn out?  And if not, are there any enterprising higher ed doctoral students out there looking for a topic?

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We have not looked at it, and it would be difficult to do so without either case controls or hijacking an entire college.

For example, we have no large classes in math. All meet in rooms with a capacity in the upper 30s. A nearby university uses large lectures (hundred or more) plus recitations for most of theirs. Can we compare? Not without correcting for a huge SAT score difference, where we even have them. (We don't, for many students.) And how do you correct for the grade curve used, or that their large lectures are taught by adjuncts?

But it is the case that a subset of those math courses at my college are heavily adjunct so the high-level ones can be 100% full time. But can we compare intro to algebra with calculus? Probably not. But we could look at success in later classes based on adjunct versus full time in something like college algebra. I wonder if we have tried that. Have you, Dean Reed?

We do have large classes (lecture plus, for some sciences, very small recitations) for the large enrollment science and social science classes. Can you compare math and science? Math and history? Composition and history? Not easy, particularly when the challenge in the science classes is reading and interpreting word problems.
I asked a bunch of people I know for information about differences between adjuncts and f-t in the same courses. So far, these:

Are There Instructional Differences between Full-Time and Part-Time Faculty?
Landrum, R. Eric
College Teaching, v57 n1 p23-26 Win 2009. 4 pp. (Peer Reviewed Journal)
ISSN: 8756-7555

This is a study the air force did on student evaluations and performance in a series of Calc 1/2 courses. Students were randomly assigned to sections and tracked through both courses.

Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?
David N. Figlio, Morton O. Schapiro, Kevin B. Soter
NBER Working Paper No. 19406
Issued in September 2013
(Not free)

The abstract of the NBER aper:
This study makes use of detailed student-level data from eight cohorts of first-year students at Northwestern University to investigate the relative effects of tenure track/tenured versus non-tenure line faculty on student learning. We focus on classes taken during a student's first term at Northwestern, and employ a unique identification strategy in which we control for both student-level fixed effects and next-class-taken fixed effects to measure the degree to which non-tenure line faculty contribute more or less to lasting student learning than do other faculty. We find consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from non-tenure line professors in their introductory courses. These differences are present across a wide variety of subject areas, and are particularly pronounced for Northwestern's average students and less-qualified students.
An open link to the Northwestern study:

And this for an intro comm course (it's 20 years old:
996 “Directing associate faculty: A rich resource for the basic course” Journal of the Association for Communication Administration, 3, pp. 187-204 for the basic communication course

I looked up the Northwestern study. As Don Coffin says, it concludes that the students of non-tenure line faculty learn relatively more than the students of tenure track/tenured faculty. I can see why this is true. At a research-oriented university like Northwestern, the tenure track/tenured faculty are caught up in the publish-or-perish treadmill and have to spend a lot of their time in fundraising, so much so that they end up spending as little time and effort as possible in teaching their classes. Teaching is little more than an unneeded distraction for them--how well or how poorly they teach really doesn’t matter all that much. In contrast, the non-tenure line faculty members are largely immune from the publish-or-perish treadmill and can spend more time and effort in improving their teaching.

But the study doesn’t really distinguish between the two types of non-tenure line faculty—the full-timers and the adjuncts. I wonder if there is a study that tracks how well adjunct part-timers perform in comparison with full-time non-tenure track faculty. Maybe it will turn out that the students of adjuncts learn less than the students of full-time non-tenure line faculty. Any thoughts?

And this, which explicitly addresses community colleges:

It is important to distinguish between full-time, non-tenured faculty, specializing in instruction, and part-time faculty, often less engaged with the institution. For two-year colleges we report in a recent JEE article

"Unfortunately, there is evidence that students are not as well served by community college adjunct instructors as they are by full-time instructors. For example, in California’s community college system, Eagan and Jaeger (2009, 180) found a 2% reduction in transfer to a four-year institution for every 10% increase in students’ exposure to part-time faculty instruction. The education literature identifies several explanations for the relative failure of instruction by part-time faculty including: unavailability of instructors outside of class time, use of less challenging instructional methods, and less academic preparation than full-time instructors (Jacoby 2006; Eagan and Jaeger 2009; Xu 2013). Specifically in economics, NSOPF data indicate that 45% of part-time economics faculty earned their highest degree in business, compared to 12% of full-time economics faculty. Thus, it is important to explore further the possibility that community colleges may underserve students because of the large reliance on part-time faculty and instructors without graduate economics degrees"

Eagan, M. Kevin, and Audrey J. Jaeger. 2009. “Effects of Exposure to Part-Time Faculty on Community College Transfer.” Research in Higher Education 50 (2): 168–88. doi:10.1007/s11162-008-9113-8.
Jacoby, Daniel. 2006. “Effects of Part-Time Faculty Employment on Community College Graduation Rates.” The Journal of Higher Education 77 (6): 1081–1103. doi:10.1353/jhe.2006.0050.
Xu, Di. 2013. “Examining the Impact of Adjunct Instructors on Student Current and Sequential Course Outcomes within a Community College System: An Instrumental Variable Approach.” New Orleans, LA.

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