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I came across an interesting article in The Economist the other day.  According to this article, based on data from LinkedIn, “one of the fastest-growing job titles in America is ‘adjunct professor’ (an ill-paid, overworked species of academic).” 

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise – there has been a lot in the media about the rise of non-tenure-track faculty, aka “freeway fliers” because of their need to cobble together multiple teaching assignments to make ends meet.  Typically without benefits.  And often, poor working conditions.

According to a report by the American Association of University Professors, there has been quite a shift in who is teaching in colleges and universities since 1975.  For example, here’s how the makeup of instructional staff has changed between 1975 and 2009:

So we went from 45% of instructional faculty being tenured or tenure-track in 1975 to 24% in 2009.  Over the same period the percentage of non-tenure (and non-grad student) instructors went from approximately one-third of instructional staff to over one half. 

From a strategy and competition in higher education perspective, it’s hard to know what to make of this data.  Currently, faculty are one of the biggest and most important “suppliers” to the higher education industry.  They do the heavy lifting.  They impart the knowledge and have the power of both the carrot and the stick to encourage learning. 

And what of outcomes?  Mixed results/opinions.

And who benefits?  On one hand, it benefits universities by keeping costs lower, allowing research faculty to research more and teach less, offer more courses and sections, and inject the more “real world” experience of practitioners that students often crave.  On the other hand, it doesn’t seem like such a great deal for these untenured instructors – typically no say in how things are run or what, when or how they teach, low (or no) benefits, no job security, and the need to string together a series of these low-paying gigs for the privilege of teaching.  However, at least some percentage of practitioner adjuncts is less concerned about benefits and job security – they just want to teach.

Some schools – particularly for-profit schools, have a high percentage of adjuncts and make no apologies for it.  In fact, it may be one of their biggest selling points – they hire practitioners that know the material they teach from an insider-to-the-industry (as opposed to researcher-of-the-industry) perspective and attempt to instill a high degree of quality control on what is taught and how it is taught.  However, some for-profits, including Grand Canyon University, are hiring more full-time adjuncts and giving them benefits to both improve faculty working conditions and student learning outcomes. 

And certainly many for-profit and not-for-profit business schools and continuing education division hire adjuncts and many of these programs are doing quite well. 



So what do you think?  Is the rise in adjunct faculty a net positive or a negative for higher education overall? 


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