Evaluating the Adjunct Impact

New studies document what happens -- and doesn't happen -- educationally when colleges rely on part timers.
November 6, 2008

Adjunct faculty members are increasingly pointing out the inequities of the way they are treated -- even as the recession leads some colleges to rely on them more and others to eliminate their positions.

A series of studies being released this week suggest that the current model for using adjuncts -- with relatively low pay, little if any job security, and minimal financial or other support for time on campus or professional development -- also has a significant impact on students. Using large samples of community colleges, studies find that as colleges use more part timers, their students are less likely to graduate or transfer to four-year institutions. And another study finds that as part-time use goes up, institutional averages in class participation (for all faculty members) go down.

The studies are being presented this week at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

Some studies looking at the impact of part-time faculty members in the past have frustrated many adjuncts because of the implication that these impacts suggest poor performance by the adjuncts themselves. These studies don't make such a suggestion and are in fact consistent with the views of adjunct activists that mistreating part timers creates conditions that hurt students.

If adjuncts don't have offices and aren't paid for time outside of class, the theory goes, is it any surprise that they are going to spend less one-on-one time with students? But raising these issues is a double-edged sword for part timers, who fear that this kind of research can encourage negative views of individual adjuncts -- even if the researchers take care (as these researchers did) not to "blame" part timers for setting up the current higher education system.

The findings on adjuncts and community college performance were both based on studies of California community college transcripts and were conducted by Audrey Jaeger of North Carolina State University, and M. Kevin Eagan of the University of California at Los Angeles.

On transfer rates, they found a "significant and negative association between students’ transfer likelihood and their exposure to part-time faculty instruction. Indeed, for every 10 percent increase in students’ exposure to part-time faculty instruction, students tended to become almost 2 percent less likely to transfer. Although the strength of this association may seem small, the average student in this sample had almost 40 percent of his or her academic credits with part-time faculty members, which translates into being, on average, about 8 percent less likely to transfer compared to peers who had no exposure to part-time faculty members."

Similarly, the study on teaching preparation -- conducted by Paul Umbach of North Carolina State University -- notes differences in class preparation time, likelihood of attending professional workshops and so forth. Adjuncts, not surprisingly, have less time for these activities, the study finds.

The authors of the new reports take care to relate these trends to the conditions of part-time employment, not to the performance or quality of adjuncts. And they note that at many institutions, especially community colleges, part-time faculty members provide a growing share of instruction -- a trend likely to grow with increased enrollments and state funds.

"Community colleges must learn to work within the system that they have perpetuated by identifying ways to tap into the talents offered by part-time faculty members," says the conclusion of the study on transfer rates. "Finding ways in which to encourage part-timers to make time for students outside of class, such as by providing part-time faculty with office space or additional money to compensate them for holding office hours, may mitigate the negative relationship between part-time faculty exposure and students’ likelihood to transfer."


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