Calculation That Doesn't Add Up

When critics question the validity of the calculations U.S. News & World Report uses to rank colleges, one answer the editors of the magazine have given is to note that it publishes not only the total rank, but also data on how colleges perform in the various categories that go into the rankings. So a prospective student who cares more about faculty resources or competitiveness or any other factor can see how colleges do there, and judge accordingly.

September 14, 2009

When critics question the validity of the calculations U.S. News & World Report uses to rank colleges, one answer the editors of the magazine have given is to note that it publishes not only the total rank, but also data on how colleges perform in the various categories that go into the rankings. So a prospective student who cares more about faculty resources or competitiveness or any other factor can see how colleges do there, and judge accordingly.

But if the factor that would-be students and their families care about is a percentage of full-time faculty, you can't count on the numbers about research universities to be correct. The two universities with the top scores in this category (both claiming 100 percent full-time faculty) have both acknowledged to Inside Higher Ed that they do not include adjunct faculty members in their calculations. U.S. News maintains that colleges do count adjuncts (or are told to) so that figure gives a true sense of the percentage of faculty members who are full time. But the two with 100 percent claims are not alone in boosting their numbers by leaving adjuncts out.

Some colleges that do so say that they read the instructions from U.S. News that way, and others say the magazine is itself inconsistent, in effect inviting them to do so. Others just leave the adjuncts out and don't indicate that unless asked.

The inconsistency shouldn't be a surprise, given that other publicly available data sources -- granted, sources that don't have the broad readership of the U.S. News rankings -- plainly state that most research universities rely heavily on adjuncts and have done so for years, making it difficult to believe that any of them would have a 100 percent full-time faculty. (A note on wording: These days many adjuncts work full time at a single institution, off the tenure track. And such adjuncts don't diminish a university's number in percentage of full-time faculty members. But the adjuncts that would -- and that are excluded at some institutions -- are those who work less than full time.)

U.S. News says that any discrepancies are the universities' fault and that it does not plan to make any corrections of rankings based on universities admitting that they left out adjuncts -- in some cases hundreds at an institution -- from their calculations.

"If a school says adjuncts should not be counted or were not reported, that means that particular school was consciously misreporting its faculty data or was on purpose deciding to understate its adjuncts for its own reasons," said Robert Morse, who runs the college rankings at the magazine. Further, he said no corrections were needed.

"U.S. News is not going to re-rank schools based on any reporting that Inside Higher Ed does that finds schools now say they misreported faculty counts to U.S. News (and probably other publishers, too). The ranking variable in question -- percent of faculty that is full-time is based on converting part-time to a full-time equivalent -- counts just 1 percent of the Best Colleges ranking," he said.

Could a University Be 100% Full Time?

The issue of inaccuracies in the rankings was first raised this month by the American Federation of Teachers, in its blog devoted to its campaign to improve the treatment of adjuncts and to create more tenure-track jobs. Focusing on the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, the AFT asked how it could be listed as having a faculty that is 100 percent full time when data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education show it has 401 part-time faculty members (compared to 1,539 full-timers).

U.S. News divides the part-time total in three, in theory because a part-time adjunct wouldn't be teaching as much as a full-time professor. Ignoring for a minute the reality than many a part-time adjunct teaches more sections than a tenured professor at a research university, applying the formula at Nebraska would not yield a 100 percent figure.

Inside Higher Ed asked Nebraska how it could claim a 100 percent full-time faculty, and it answered that it left out all of its adjuncts, believing that was what U.S. News wanted.

The answer raised the question of whether other universities did the same. One institution besides Nebraska said it had 100 percent: the Georgia Institute of Technology. A spokesman said that Georgia Tech believes U.S. News wants only faculty members with academic rank, and this excludes adjuncts, so Georgia Tech -- which does in fact have adjuncts -- doesn't include them.

Surveying the top research universities that U.S. News says have at least 95 percent full-time faculty, it's clear that those two are not alone in making greater use of adjuncts than the magazine's rankings state.

Definitional Issues

Take North Carolina State University, which U.S. News says has a faculty that is 96 percent full time even though it has hundreds of adjuncts. Karen Helm, director of university planning and analysis, said that the university counts as faculty only those whose "whose sole or primary employer is NC State." So full-time adjuncts are counted, as are some who are close to full time. But most part-time adjuncts are not counted, making it not surprising that the figure results in a high percentage of full-time faculty members.

Pennsylvania State University has 414 part-time faculty members, according to the most recent count by the university. But the university considers them to be employees, not faculty members, and so does not count any of them in its calculation for U.S. News, which says that 95 percent of the university's faculty is full time. "The problem is in the definition of 'adjunct' -- because that can vary by institution. We consider adjuncts to be part-time employees," said Lisa Powers, director of public information.

The University of Iowa (98 percent full time according to U.S. News) gets its high percentage in part because it counts only "permanent" employees, so any part timers who work semester to semester or year to year (a not uncommon circumstance) are not counted. The University of Missouri at Columbia (98 percent full-time faculty according to U.S. News) does not count its adjuncts in its total, a spokeswoman said.

Simeon Moss, a spokesman for Cornell University (98 percent full-time faculty according to U.S. News), said that Cornell excludes adjuncts from the calculation on full-time faculty members, but he said that the inconsistent party is the magazine, not the university, because U.S. News goes back and forth in different items on whether to include adjuncts, explicitly excluding them sometimes. Moss noted that the question is raised by four figures requested by the magazine: average faculty salaries, proportion of faculty who are full time, proportion of faculty who have a terminal degree, and student-faculty ratio.

Cornell excludes adjuncts across the board -- so that it is consistent in its faculty counts, Moss said.

"U.S. News is inconsistent in how they define faculty across these areas. They use the most stringent definition for the average faculty salaries, explicitly excluding 'non-professorial rank faculty with title of instructor, lecturer, or no-rank.' and in the others they are more generous with what constitutes faculty," Moss said. "For the sake of consistency, we've proceeded on the assumption that when we talk about faculty we should be talking about the same group of people in all areas. This, of course, may help us on the proportion of faculty who are full time, but it certainly does not help us with the student-faculty ratio. But, we are being consistent."

Beyond these definitional disagreements, there are broader questions about whether the U.S. News approach -- counting bodies of faculty members -- is the right one. The AFT, which flagged this issue by spotting the Nebraska inconsistency, has argued that what should be counted is course sections -- and how many are taught by full-time or part-time individuals.

That's because -- especially at prominent research universities -- course loads of many tenured and tenure-track faculty members are low, given the research obligations of these scholars. So to the extent rankings systems are trying to tell prospective students about their undergraduate experience, what matters is how many sections are taught by whom, not the mere existence of full-time faculty members.

A further issue that has been raised by the AFT and other critics is that the U.S. News figures exclude (by the magazine's choice) all instruction by graduate students -- meaning that just about every research university in the rankings would have a lower percentage if the actual section instructors were all counted. Using federal data, the AFT calculated for a report last year that 19 percent of instructional staff members at research universities are graduate students -- so nearly one fifth of instructors, almost all of them part-time because they are also graduate students, are not counted by the magazine when portraying the faculty.

Morse, of U.S. News, defends the magazine's methodology, even if many of the universities ranked at the highest levels in this category are excluding hundreds of adjuncts and all graduate instructors. He said that the magazine has made "a conscious decision not to include grad instructors in the definition, since we are just measuring faculty." And as for the definitional questions raised by the universities, "U.S. News believes the faculty definition that we use is very clear and that adjuncts should be counted."


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