The Part-Time Impact

Students not enrolled full time have less faculty interaction -- and so do full-timers at colleges with many part-timers, study finds.
November 16, 2009

It is well known that part-time community college students are significantly less likely to graduate than their full-time peers, but a new report suggests that the part-time status of some of the faculty teaching them may heighten their risk of dropping out. While the report and its lead author stress that this should not be viewed as the fault of the adjuncts, some leaders of organizations for non-tenure-track faculty said that they were concerned about the way the study frames the issue.

Monday, the latest Community College Survey of Student Engagement was released by the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin. This year’s survey was administered to more than 400,000 students from 663 institutions in 48 states, 3 Canadian provinces and the Marshall Islands.

Now in its ninth year, CCSSE has become a widely accepted tool to shape curriculum and students services in the two-year sector because of the comparable data it provides on student experiences. Unlike the National Survey of Student Engagement, its four-year equivalent, CCSSE publicizes the individual results of all of the institutions that participate.

Although many topics are addressed in the national report that accompanies this year’s survey results, one is singled out as being among “the greatest challenges community colleges face in creating strong connections with students.” The report refers to it as “the phenomenon of part-timeness"; the persistent reality that close to two-thirds of community college students attend college part time and that about two-thirds of community college faculty members teach part time.

Through the years, CCSSE data have shown that students consider academic advising the most important student service offered them. This year, for instance, 62 percent of students said it was “very important"; financial aid advising came in a close second place with 61 percent.

Still, data from the Community College Faculty Survey of Student Engagement -- an accompanying survey asking faculty about their perceptions of student experiences -- indicate that 42 percent of part-time faculty members do not spend any time advising students in a typical week. The report also notes that even when part-time faculty members have the same teaching loads as their full-time counterparts, they still spend less time with students outside of the classroom. Forty percent of part-time faculty members who teach between 9 and 12 hours a week never spent time advising students; only 15 percent of full-time faculty members who teach the same number of hours never did so.

The problem of individual student engagement is further confounded because part-time students -- who are less likely to succeed than their full-time peers -- are more likely to attend evening classes that are also more likely to be taught by part-time faculty. Forty-three percent of part-time students take evening classes, whereas only 12 percent of full-time students take them. The report stresses that, as a result, “these students have fewer options for certain kinds of interventions that strengthen engagement.”

“A lot of things are happening during the day for daytime students, and not much happens at night for nighttime students … like activities and orientations,” said one of the anonymous students cited in the report. “If you come to class at night, you miss out on all that.”

Kay McClenney, CCSSE director at the University of Texas at Austin, said the report is not blaming part-time faculty for their lack of engagement with students, acknowledging that they are simply working within the framework that is given them. Instead, she said it is the intent of the report to encourage community colleges “to offer part-time faculty the same kind of instructional support and development opportunities that are available to their full-time colleagues.”

“We should be acknowledging the elephant in the room,” McClenney said. “Disengaged faculty doesn’t change students. We hire part-time faculty almost exclusively under the understanding that we’re just paying them to show up for three hours in a classroom. Why is that? Is it possible to hire adjunct faculty with a different set of expectations, including that they participate in professional development and other services? What I don’t have are glib, easy answers, but the survey does raise these questions.”

The report cites Vancouver Community College, in British Columbia, as an example of how an institution can make part-time faculty more engaged outside of the classroom. Part-time faculty at Vancouver are compensated not only for time in the classroom but also for “tasks such as holding office hours, grading papers, preparing course materials, supervising practicums, and tending to administrative duties.” The contracts for these adjuncts make clear how much time they will spend on these related activities. In addition, the community college prorates pay for adjuncts “so that their hourly earnings are comparable to those of full-time faculty members with similar experience.”

Adjunct faculty, however, have a different take on some of the conclusions made by this year's CCSSE.

Jack Longmate, an adjunct faculty member in English at Olympic College, in Washington, and vice president of his National Education Association–affiliated local, acknowledged that "there is a causal relationship between the use of part-time faculty, who are typically hired to 'just teach,' and low student engagement." Still, he qualified the way he views this relationship and the way the report did.

"Certainly a part-time faculty member could take offense at side-by-side comparisons of full-time (tenured) and part-time (non-tenured) faculty about tasks that full-time faculty but not part-time faculty are contracted to execute," Long wrote in an e-mail. "An example [in the report], 'Even when they have the same teaching loads, part-time faculty spend less time engaging students outside the classroom.' That statement would presume that with equal teaching loads, duties assigned, institutional support, provisions of office space, etc. -- were all neutral. Particularly egregious was the report’s discussion of the failure of part-time faculty to execute student advising duties when advising duties are very rarely ever contracted to part-time faculty. That is sort of like criticizing a football player for having poor statistics in a different sport, say baseball."

Longmate -- a board member of the New Faculty Majority, a new national adjunct organization -- gave the report credit for mentioning the Vancouver Community College model, noting that, "when part-time faculty are treated with respect and dignity and provided job security, there is no reason to suppose that they cannot serve equally well at student advising or other interaction activities." Aside from this example, however, Longmate noted the report's lack of suggestions to improve engagement involving part-timers.

"The report did not offer much in the way of a roadmap to bring about stronger faculty-student connection aside from rather simplistic statements like: 'faculty members are more likely to participate in these activities if their participation is required...' which could be read as would suggest that it is merely an undisciplined faculty that might explain the poor service with students," Longmate wrote. "Such statements are offensive to part-time faculty, for they suggest that the solution is to maximize reliance on full-time faculty and minimize the reliance on part-time faculty, which amounts to solving the problem by sweeping it under the carpet so that it may be less visible."

Keith Hoeller, co-founder of the Washington State Part-Time Faculty Association, expressed a similar sentiment but put a particular focus on part-time faculty pay.

"It is important to note that many adjuncts participate in non-teaching duties, such as advising, course creation, curriculum planning, professional development, research, and publishing," Hoeller wrote in an e-mail. "In most cases, however, adjuncts are generally not compensated for their extra time and effort outside the classroom, and there is no guarantee that such extra effort will be rewarded with raises, promotions, or even a tenure-track job.... There can be little doubt that adjunct professors are underemployed, undercompensated, and underutilized. But if we want adjuncts to be more engaged in non-teaching duties, the answer is simple: we should pay and reward them for their work in a manner entirely equal to the full-time tenure-stream faculty."

The Influence of Social Networking

Another major topic specific to this year’s CCSSE is the effectiveness of using social networking tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, to interact with students. The survey found that students who use these tools to interact with fellow students and professors “about coursework” showed higher levels of engagement. Still, those same students who used these tools in a higher frequency “for any purpose” – including social and other non-academic purposes – were less engaged overall.

McClenney admitted the same “point of diminishing returns” could be applied to a high frequency of non-academic use of any potentially educational tool, such as a television or a computer. Still, she noted that CCSSE data show that colleges are not utilizing these social networking tools to the same degree that students use them in their own lives.

For instance, only 5 percent of “traditional-age students” reported that they never used social networking tools for any purpose, whereas 64 percent reported that they used them “multiple times per day.” Forty-three percent of these same “traditional-age students,” however, noted that their college never used social networking tools to discuss services such as “financial aid, advising, etc.”

Some colleges participating in CCSSE are even encouraging more of their faculty members to actively use some of these social networking tools to interact with students personally. The report notes that Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas has encouraged the use of Facebook in conjunction with coursework and as a student recruitment tool. Though 62 percent of Phillips faculty have a Facebook account, 74 percent of them noted that “had been using it for one year or less, indicating that the college’s effort during this timeframe were successful.” Phillips will administer the CCSSE next year to see if these tools have made a difference at all with students.

McClenney said she was not sure if such tools could really boost student engagement. She noted, however, that the colleges that successfully engage students with social networking tools “understand that sharing information using social media is not necessarily connecting with students.” These tools, she added, must be “suited” to the service being provided.

Offering an example, McClenney said the focus groups that were conducted as part of this year’s CCSSE revealed that students consistently reported that they would prefer it if their college eliminated online orientation in favor of an in-person one. Still, these same students said they preferred online tutoring to face-to-face tutoring. McClenney said, however, that these two competing preferences should not be confusing.

“Students tell us that they want personal communication, a personal connection to their instructors and others,” McClenney said. “They say it’s far more compelling to them. An online orientation is very impersonal because you never really interact with someone. But an online tutoring session is, in a sense, one-on-one, just through a different medium. That’s the difference.”

Learning Beyond the Classroom

Another of this year’s notable topics, CCSSE also found that 77 percent of community college students have never “participated in a community-based project as apart of a regular course,” despite other CCSSE data that show such programs drastically improve student performance. McClenney said community college officials should not lower expectations of their students because of their many obligations outside of the classroom, including work and family.

“People in community college often feel like that they can’t ask too much of their students because of the other competing demands in their lives,” McClenney said. “But when we talk to students, they tell us not to let our empathy get in the way of our expectations for them. We often hear from students that they would prefer such out-of-the-classroom portions of their courses to be mandatory. They say, ‘First, we’d gripe about it being mandatory, but then we’d do it.’ … The other details of ensuring that students can find time to do these things will sort itself out once it’s made mandatory by the college.”

The report notes that Bridgemont Community and Technical College, in West Virginia, has overcome this problem by helping “students organize community service activities related to their academic fields of study.” Dental hygiene students offer free oral health education in the community, civil engineering technology students monitor a stream in the local watershed, and building construction students help build Habitat for Humanity houses.


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