Faculty Frets About Declining Student Quality

Community college professors cite most concern, but they like their jobs the most, too, UCLA survey finds.
September 13, 2005

Community college faculty members are far likelier than those at four-year institutions to believe that their students are underprepared for college work. But professors at two-year institutions are more satisfied with their jobs than are their peers at four-year colleges, according to a survey of faculty attitudes by a research center at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"The American College Teacher," a report on a survey conducted every three years by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, offers a portrait of the full-time professoriate (part-timers are not surveyed) on a range of workplace and personal issues, including their views of their jobs, their institutions and their students. The survey contains a wealth of data on professors' duties, job satisfaction and sources of stress, among many other factors. 

One of the most closely analyzed nuggets of data -- especially by commentators outside academe -- is on professors' political views. This year's report suggests that commentators who complain about the leftward lurch of the professoriate are not imagining it: 51.9 percent of the 40,670 professors surveyed described themselves as far left or liberal, while just 19.5 percent said they were conservative or far right. 

This continues a steady shift, with the biggest change over time coming not from a reduction in the number of conservative professors but (like the national political landscape generally) from a shrinkage of the political center: In 2004-5, only 29 percent of respondents described themselves as middle of the road, down from about 40 percent in 1989-90. (It's also clear, though, that overgeneralization can be dangerous. More than a quarter of professors at two-year colleges and non-Roman Catholic religious institutions defined themselves as conservative.)

Moving on to less sexy but perhaps more meaningful findings, the survey asked for the first time whether professors were satisfied with the quality of their students. Just under half of all instructors -- 49.6 percent -- said they were. In addition, only 35.5 percent of all professors said they believed that faculty members at their own institution felt that students were well-prepared academically, although that number has actually increased from 28 percent in 1998.

Fewer than two in five faculty members at two-year institutions said they were satisfied with the quality of their students, compared to 75.1 percent of professors at private universities, 51.7 percent at public universities, and 55.9 percent at private four-year colleges. And only 21.5 percent of community college professors said their students were well-prepared academically, compared to nearly 45 percent at four-year private colleges and 36.5 percent at public universities.

But two-year college instructors seemed, by and large, to like working at institutions that embraced the mission of serving underprepared students. More than four in five community college professors said they believed that their institutions take "responsibility for educating underprepared students" (compared to about three in five instructors at other colleges).

In addition, two-year-college instructors were more likely than those at four-year colleges to say that their "values are congruent with the dominant institutional values" where they worked, and 81.5 percent of them said they were either very satisfied or satisfied with their jobs, compared to 76.8 percent of four-year college professors. They were also more likely than four-year college professors (by a margin of 73 to 67 percent) to say they experienced joy in their work "to a great extent."

In another measure of professors' job satisfaction, the survey asked respondents: "If you were to begin your career again, would you still want to be a college professor?" Two-year and four-year professors answered that question similarly, as about 85 percent of each said definitely or probably yes -- but male instructors were more likely than their female counterparts to definitely want to do it all again, by a margin of 57 percent to 52 percent.

That may be because women were likelier than men to say that they felt stress in the last two years from a broad array of institutional and personal factors, as shown in the following table:

Proportion of Male and Female Professors Citing Stress From Various Factors

Factor % of Men Citing as Cause of Stress % of Women Citing as Cause of Stress
Managing household responsibilities 68.0% 81.8%
Child care 29.4 29.6
Review/promotion process 40.3 50.8
Subtle discrimination 17.9 34.2
Teaching load 61.6 70.8
Lack of personal time 68.5 81.9
Keeping up with technology 54.0 64.2
Being part of 2-career couple 31.0 41.6
Self-imposed expectations 75.0 84.4

Among other highlights of the UCLA survey:

  • Given a list of items and asked which were "high" or "highest" priorities at their institutions, professors' top answer was promoting the intellectual development of students, at 83 percent. But while such things as developing students' leadership and increasing the representation of women and minority group members lagged, next on the list were enhancing the institution's national image and increasing or sustaining its prestige.
  • Three in five faculty members said they believed strongly or somewhat that "tenure is essential to attract the best minds to academe. About a third said it was an "outmoded concept."
  • Nearly a quarter of instructors said college officials have the right to ban people with extreme views from speaking on the campus.
  • Thirty percent said colleges should be concerned with facilitating undergraduates' spiritual development.
  • Nine of 10 professors said they believed a racially and ethnically diverse student body enhances the educational experience of all students; about a quarter say that promoting diversity leads to the "admission of too many underprepared students."


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