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WASHINGTON -- Thousands of education scholars converged on the District of Columbia this week for the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, the largest convening of the women and men who study K-12 and postsecondary learning. The conference's agenda featured papers, posters and presentations on a wide array of topics.

Following is a selection of some of the studies that caught the eye of Inside Higher Ed's reporters and editors, because of some combination of the timeliness of their topics and the compelling nature of their findings.

Who Are the Adjuncts?

A lot of us hold stereotypes about adjunct instructors -- they all work part time, they spend all day driving from college to college, they're all would-be tenure trackers. But data on who they are and how they work is hard to come by, and research on them even harder to find. And the lack of a clear understanding of who adjuncts are and what they do makes any effort to understand the nature of the problem -- let alone fix it -- very difficult.

A paper presented at the AERA meeting seeks to apply some structure to the messy, oversimplified group of people who teach off the tenure track. The Spencer Foundation-supported study by Chad Evans and Frank Furstenberg at the University of Pennsylvania examines two data sets that they acknowledge are imperfect but portray, when viewed together, "the most complete profile of adjuncts in higher education": surveys by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles and by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce.

The researchers divide those off the tenure track into four basic categories: full-time adjuncts (those who teach a full course load at one college or university); professional adjuncts (those who teach part time at a college but have another full-time career -- think the moonlighting lawyer or graphic artist); single-institution adjuncts (part-timers who teach only at one institution); and itinerant adjuncts (part-timers who stitch together work at two or more colleges and have no full-time job outside the academy).

Roughly half of adjuncts in both data sets (53 percent in the UCLA study and 43 percent in the coalition's) were in the full-time category, and the rest roughly divided among the three other classifications. About 14 percent of both earned the itinerant label. (One of the study's many caveats is that "it is important to keep in mind that a significant minority of part-timers holds full-time jobs somewhere else.")

Comparing the full-time and part-time adjuncts, the authors found no notable gender differences. But "older individuals are more likely to be part-time than full-time adjunct faculty" -- between two-thirds and three-quarters of adjuncts over 65 are in part-time positions, while younger adjuncts are more likely to be in full-time positions. The authors attribute that result in part to the likelihood that "pre-retirees and retired faculty continue to teach as they phase out of the academic labor market."

Adjuncts with a Ph.D. are more likely to work full time than part time, while majorities of those with medical or law degrees -- and those without a professional degree at all -- work part time. About a quarter of the itinerant adjuncts and between a third and half of single-institution adjuncts (depending on the survey) lack a professional degree.

Among the part-time adjuncts, men were more likely than women were to work as professional adjuncts, and older adjuncts were more likely to be in the single-institution category, since they are likely teaching out the end of their careers, while the younger instructors are piecing together the start of one.

The majority of itinerant and single-institution adjuncts appear from the data to "lack a sufficient income from teaching," the authors state, with between two-fifths (in the UCLA study) and two-thirds (in the coalition sample) reporting earning less than $35,000. And many lack health and retirement benefits.

Half of part-time professional adjuncts and between a third and half of single-institution adjuncts said they would not accept a full-time, tenure-track position if offered to them. But three-quarters or more of the itinerant adjuncts said they would accept such a job.

"In some important respects, part-time adjuncts do indeed resemble the troubling picture that emerges from small-scale studies and anecdotal accounts," especially those who fall into the itinerant category and some of the single-institution adjuncts, the authors write. But significant numbers of single-institution adjuncts would not accept a tenure-track job and are "doing so for personal reasons that may arise from family-work balances, a wish to teach after retirement, or because they combine their part-time teaching with other part-time employment outside of academia."

And while many observers attribute the growth of adjuncts to overproduction of Ph.D.s by universities, the authors question that assertion. "[A] sizable proportion of the adjunct population consists of those with master's degrees and those who exited their graduate institution [without a dissertation]," they write. "Except some fields in the humanities, [m]ost adjuncts do not have Ph.D.s, and most Ph.D.s outside of the humanities do not end up teaching as part-time faculty."

Liberal Arts Researchers?

Liberal arts colleges promote themselves as places where teaching prevails -- where faculty members, arguably in contrast to their peers at research institutions, are focused on undergraduate instruction rather than their own scholarship. But since many institutional ranking systems place a significant value on research, have liberal arts colleges, like others, felt pressure to crank up their research output?

A study released at the AERA meeting suggests yes. Kyle Sweitzer, a data resource analyst at Michigan State University, analyzed data from a mix of federal and other sources on full-time faculty members at about 138 liberal arts colleges and found that the number of publications per full-time instructor over a two-year period at the institutions rose from 0.25 in 1993-94 to 0.38 in 2012-13.

Three-quarters of the institutions had fewer than 0.33 publications per full-time instructor in 1993-94; half had that few by 2012-13. And three times as many of the colleges had at least 0.5 publications per instructor in 2011-12 than did in 1993-94.

While research output was generally highest among institutions highly ranked in U.S. News & World Report's institutional rankings, "some of the colleges with the largest increase in per-faculty publications were not ranked highly," Sweitzer writes. "One of the top five, and three of the top 10, in increased per-faculty publications were ranked below the top 50 in USNWR."

Sweitzer also tried (with mixed success, he acknowledges) to calculate whether the uptick in research output was accompanied by growth in how much the liberal arts colleges spent on research; the data on research spending by such institutions are spotty. But from the information that was available, Sweitzer showed that the ratio of research to instructional spending at the institutions stayed generally the same. "A reasonable interpretation is that liberal arts colleges have generally been able to maintain their commitment to teaching," he writes.

The Impact of Promise Programs

With his push for free community college, which he dubbed America's College Promise, President Obama has put significant momentum behind the promise programs that have cropped up over the past decade in multiple cities and states. The programs, which pledge financial help to make college accessible to all students in a geographic area, have been widely adopted and emulated, but analysis of their efficacy has been limited so far.

Jennifer A. Delaney and Bradley Hemenway, an associate professor of higher education and a doctoral student, respectively, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, presented a paper at the AERA meeting that seeks to change that.

Using data from the Delta Cost Project, they sought to gauge the impact of promise programs on the tuition pricing, financial aid awards and completion success at various types of institutions.

Among their findings:

  • The introduction of promise programs in their geographic areas in general led four-year public institutions to increase their in-state tuition rates but to mostly offset those increases with declines in other student fees. And at two-year institutions, tuition levels did not rise, but "the less-well-monitored required fees" did, which would "erode any purchasing power benefits of either holding tuition steady or decreasing tuition." In neither case, though, did the institutions appear to gain significant new revenue from the introduction of the promise programs, as the researchers suspected they might, in line with the so-called Bennett hypothesis.
  • The introduction of promise programs in a given area led to increases in Pell Grant funding at two-year institutions and declines in those funds at four-year colleges, consistent with the researchers' expectation that "promise programs encourage more low-income students to attend community colleges and that these students are qualifying for and receiving federal Pell Grant funds, a highly targeted need-based grant award," and that "the students pushed into a four-year institution tend to be from families with relatively higher incomes than the students pulled into two-year institutions."
  • Promise programs tended to result in lower levels of degree completion at two-year institutions and elevated levels at some four-year universities. The researchers hypothesize: "If four-year institutions 'cream' more academically able promise students, then these would have been the students the most likely to graduate from the two-year institution, and the institution’s total number of degrees awarded would be expected to be lower. In addition, if students with a promise scholarship are enticed to transfer institutions, they are less likely to complete their degree at a two-year institution and instead will receive their degree at the four-year institution to which they transfer."

Labor Returns for Hispanic-Serving Institutions

Roughly 60 percent of Hispanic college students attend Hispanic-serving institutions, or HSIs, a federal categorization meaning at least 25 percent of a college's full-time students are Hispanic. A study released at AERA examined the long-term labor market returns of graduates of Hispanic-serving institutions in Texas, finding comparable earnings for those students in relation to graduates of other colleges.

The report from New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development found that the selectivity of colleges drove differences in labor-market returns for Hispanic graduates, not HSI status.

"We found no difference in wages when comparing graduates of HSIs and non-HSIs that are similarly selective," the study said, "after controlling for our measures of human and social capital and the region of Texas where the graduates were employed 10 years after finishing high school."

The study's authors are Toby Park, an assistant professor of education at Florida State University; Stella M. Flores, an associate professor of higher education at the Steinhardt School; and Christopher J. Ryan Jr., a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. The Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania will release a policy report version in coming weeks.

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