Adjuncts and Graduation Rates

Community colleges with greater share of full-time faculty are more likely to have students who finish programs, study finds.
October 16, 2006

If community colleges want to see more students graduate or finish programs, what should institutions do? Add new testing or assessment programs?

There may be a simple answer. A national analysis of graduation and program completion rates at community colleges has found that institutions with higher percentages of full-time faculty members have higher completion rates. The study was conducted by Dan Jacoby, the Harry Bridges Professor of Labor Studies at the University of Washington, whose paper on the research is forthcoming in the Journal of Higher Education.

The actual numbers vary by type of institution. But using regression analyses, Jacoby documented the relationship between full-time faculty and completion rates at community colleges with a variety of academic missions and student demographics. In an interview Friday, he said he realized that graduation rates were an imperfect measure of community colleges because so many of their students don't seek degrees. So he looked broadly at measures of program completion, and believes that because some students do want to finish degrees, the analysis is a good measure of student success.

While the use of adjuncts is widespread and growing in all sectors of higher education, it is particularly prevalent at two-year institutions. In many cases, community colleges seek out part-timers who are professionals in various fields to teach career-related courses. But community colleges also fill many sections (a majority in some subject areas on some campuses) with part timers. Administrators frequently say that given their institutions' enrollment growth and tight budgets, they have little choice.

Jacoby said that he hoped his research might prompt more reflection on this practice. "People need to realize that the performance of colleges is not indifferent to the use of part timers," he said. "By having a lot of part timers, the college becomes less effective," he said.

A former part timer himself, Jacoby stressed that he didn't think part-time instructors were any less effective in the classroom or less intelligent than their full-time counterparts. But other realities no doubt kick in: Many adjuncts don't have offices, aren't on campus when they aren't teaching, and don't have the consistent involvement in departments that makes them able to fully help students, he said.

Keith Hoeller, co-founder of the Washington State Part-Time Faculty Association, said he thought Jacoby's findings were quite significant. "There is a fiction that you can cut costs with lots of adjuncts," Hoeller said. "There's a sense that as long as you have someone in front of the classroom in class hours, everything else is fine."

Hoeller said that an important fact to consider is that low program completion rates are expensive -- to students and their families who have paid tuition and to taxpayers who have subsidized instruction. Everyone saves money if students move through the system, Hoeller said, so the current use of part timers may not actually be saving money.

The study is also a reminder, he said, that there is a middle ground between having a full-time faculty and paying adjuncts for time leading classes. He predicted that the graduation rate gap would disappear if adjuncts were paid for time on campus generally, so they could have more office hours, more time to meet with students, and be more fully part of the campuses where they teach.

"Right now adjuncts are being underutilized," he said. "Colleges are just paying them for classroom time, while tenured faculty earn for all hours." If colleges started paying part timers for non-classroom work, he said, "we would be happy to do equal work for equal pay."


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