What Adjunct Impact?

May 3, 2010

DENVER -- One of the more controversial topics in the debate over the use of adjuncts has been the question of whether they have a negative effect on the student educational experience. Several recent studies have suggested such an impact, angering many adjuncts. They have argued that any gaps are as likely to reflect gaps in resources (which faculty members get paid for office hours? Or even have offices? Or have manageable course loads?) In fairness to the authors of those studies, it should be noted that their research projects have noted such issues, but the findings have still stung many an adjunct.

On Sunday, research presented here at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association challenged those findings, and found no impact at all on student outcomes of having adjunct instructors. Notably, the research did find a correlation that might explain why people may associate adjuncts with less successful student outcomes. And the research also challenges some conventional wisdom about enrolling part time.

The study was based on tracking 1,424 people who enrolled as first-year community college students at Blue Ridge Community College, a rural institution in Virginia. Les Bolt, an associate professor of education at Appalachian State University, said that the study originated when he was approached by Hara Charlier, then a dean at Blue Ridge and now interim vice president of instruction there, about a complaint she was receiving from her full-time faculty members. They were concerned about adjunct hiring, and raised questions about whether the use of adjuncts was having a negative impact on student learning. Bolt and Charlier looked at the college's data and said that they didn't have any information to answer the question, so they set out to do so.

Bolt, who presented the findings here, said that the scholarly literature tends to fall into two strands. Some studies focus on the flexibility and cost savings that institutions achieve by using more adjuncts. Other studies focus on what has been portrayed as a negative learning impact on students of having adjuncts.

For their study, Bolt and Charlier looked at students who were considered to have "high exposure" to adjuncts (at least 75 percent of first semester courses taught by adjuncts) and "low exposure" (up to 25 percent of courses). About 30 percent of the students were in the low exposure group and about 41 percent were in the high exposure group.

Then Bolt and Charlier tracked student success over three years, looking at two measures of success: fall to fall retention, and program completion (either a degree or a certificate, depending on the student's program). They found absolutely no correlation between adjunct exposure and either of those measures. But they also analyzed other factors, and they found a negative correlation on both measures of success with a student starting in remedial courses. Bolt said in an interview that this could explain why some view having adjuncts as negatively affecting student outcomes. Many colleges rely on adjuncts for remedial instruction, he noted. So one who tracked only adjunct teaching and didn't factor in the success odds for remedial courses might associate problems with the instructor, and not with a kind of course that tends to have high failure rates, regardless of instructor.

Bolt said that the research will now be extended for another three years, and possibly to other community colleges. But he said that, based on the first three years of data, it was important to question findings of negative learning outcomes associated with adjunct teaching.

The study also found positive relationships between enrolling part time and student outcomes. This runs counter to the advice of many experts that students be encouraged to enroll full time. Bolt said that he has a theory -- not yet tested -- that the success rates of full-time students are lagging because of the increase in the number of recent high school graduates, many of whom don't yet know what they want from an education and "bomb out." In contrast, a larger share of those who start part time are older students with specific goals for their education.

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