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...