Rise of the Adjuncts: Are Part-Time Teachers Hijacking Higher Ed?

When people talk about college adjuncts, there are generally two places that discussion can go:

  1. Adjuncts have become the most crucial yet under-supported factor of our college system.
  2. Adjuncts are singlehandedly destroying higher education.

Adjuncts are a polarizing topic if ever there was one, and chances are good that you fall into one camp or the other. But before you decide where you stand, there are some facts—and some surprising trends—you need to know.

First, what’s an adjunct?

This can be a difficult term to pin down. Not every school agrees on what the “adjunct” position entails, but Concordia University has a pretty straightforward definition:

The position of adjunct professor is an important one. Colleges need instructors, and this position allows prospective academics the opportunity to try out the role of professor. Adjunct professors are hired by schools on a contractual, part-time basis as opposed to the traditional university model of full-time employment. The role of adjunct professor is continually expanding in education, due to ever-tightening budgets and many qualified applicants for relatively few jobs.

How many adjuncts are there, you might ask? In two words, a lot. According to Forbes, 30% of college faculty were part-time in 1975. By 2011 that number had ballooned to 51%, plus an additional 19% of full-time employees who are non-tenured. That means that a whopping 70% of college staff members can safely be called contingent faculty. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reports this number even higher at 76% nationwide.

Since 1980, the AAUP has recommended that universities only use adjunct professors for specialized courses and to teach in emergency situations. But as of right now, the growing number of adjuncts and contingent faculty is showing no signs of slowing down.

According to Forbes, 70% of college employees are now non-tenure track faculty. Click To Tweet

Why the adjunct takeover?

On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense that so many college faculty aren’t even full-time professors. After all, college tuition amounts are rising about twice as fast as the rate of inflation. No joke.

Well, in reality there are many reasons why adjuncts are on the rise. Research indicates that the most common reasons to hire lots of adjuncts fast are sudden curricular changes, faculty hiring freezes, and just a general shortage of full-time faculty choices. The number of students attending college is growing, but the number of full-time professionals to teach them isn’t. Plain and simple.

Colleges are also pushing their tenured faculty to focus on research and mentoring grad students. With the tenured track tied up with these responsibilities, universities rely on adjuncts to pick up the slack with the undergrads. After all, adjuncts don’t have to worry about publish or perish demands. (Related article: Does Publish or Perish Kill Innovation?)

Surprisingly, the huge upswing in adjunct faculty numbers appears to be more about priorities in education than budget concerns. The AAUP website states,

The greatest growth in contingent appointments occurred during times of economic prosperity. Many institutions have invested heavily in facilities and technology while cutting instructional spending. Though incoming students may find finer facilities, they are also likely to find fewer full-time faculty with adequate time, professional support, and resources available for their instruction.

So how is this army of adjuncts affecting the students?

Here’s what The Atlantic has to say on the subject:

In a report released last year, 56 percent of all classes at community colleges in Pennsylvania were taught by adjunct or non-tenure track professors. They receive $2,500 per class. If the adjuncts taught a staggering five classes per semester, their salary would be $25,000 per year. They often receive no benefits. All these adjuncts are bad news for undergraduates at the public colleges.

Many adjuncts are excellent teachers, but their temporary status and their exclusion from faculty meetings means that students can’t rely on them for advice on course selection. It’s difficult to develop relationships with faculty that may not have their own offices or might teach at multiple schools. It’s also hard to be an excellent professor when you’re poor and your career is unstable.

The Atlantic isn’t the only one out there that’s worried. Professor Adrianna Kezar from USC Rossier School of Education is nervous about this too.

Kezar is one of the main researchers of The Delphi Project. This study has collected extensive amounts of data on contingent faculty and adjuncts nationwide. Its goal: to find out what effects are taking place on college campuses that hire so many part-time teachers. The results are sadly kind of grim.

Over time Kezar’s work has revealed that although hiring adjuncts is a short-term money saver, it does come with long-term costs. The more classes students take from adjuncts, the lower their chances of graduation will be. These students are also much less likely to transfer from two-year colleges to four-year colleges. Kezar also found that adjuncts have much less contact with their students outside of class and spend less time preparing for classes too, so sadly the correlations make sense.

Another prominent area where adjuncts fall short for students is with letters of recommendation. Recommendations from adjuncts just don’t count as much as full-time faculty members. Sometimes students reach out to ask for recommendations and can’t even get a hold of their adjunct professors because they’ve left the university. It’s a rough position to be in if the majority of your undergraduate professors were all adjuncts that may not be around anymore. By the time a student needs a solid letter to land a job or a cool internship, their favorite adjunct teacher may be unavailable or unable to write the type of recommendation that student needs.

So apparently there is plenty of cause for concern here. As parents and students are looking for a college to attend, most are focused on cost and the reputation of the school. Very few focus on quality of instruction in the classroom. Almost no college brochure out there tells prospective students how many adjuncts will be teaching them and what quality of education they’ll receive. And research clearly shows that professors with low pay and no job security may provide lower quality teaching too.

But what’s the other side of the story?

There are always two sides to any story, and adjuncts certainly have their own reasons for why part-time teaching isn’t as easy as it might seem.

Lots of personal stories out there describe adjuncts having only days to prepare a class, sometimes on unfamiliar topics too. And that’s only one of the challenges adjuncts experience. Many adjuncts are overworked and underpaid, have to share cramped office space with many other adjuncts, or have no office at all. Where exactly are they supposed to mentor and meet with students?

Lack of job security is another huge problem for adjuncts, and not just because of the financial and emotional challenges. The biggest problem that administrators might not realize is the fear of angry student evaluations. There’s a lot of pressure for adjuncts to keep their heads down, give out good grades, and not anger the students they teach. Instead of focusing on their work and grading honestly, there’s a lot of motivation for adjuncts to not rock the boat. Feeling unstable in a teaching job is a massive recipe for grade inflation.

Here are some other sobering facts about adjuncts that most higher ed professionals just don’t know:

Although most adjuncts nationwide aren’t unionized, many are taking steps to improve their conditions. The Adjunct Project national database is a place where adjuncts from any school can report how much they make and the kind of benefits they receive so others will know whether to look for a job at that school.

Only 22.6% of adjuncts receive health coverage from academic employers. Click To Tweet

There’s a big push for more transparency over how universities treat their adjuncts. This movement benefits both adjuncts and students in the long run. If adjuncts are treated better and paid better, that gives them the energy and support to teach better, right?

But that brings up another important point we haven’t addressed yet.

Are adjuncts as terrible at teaching as we think?

From a purely logical standpoint, it makes sense that they wouldn’t be the best choice for student learning. They often have less experience than their tenured colleagues and tend to be younger and busier with concerns outside of academia. All of these reasons should explain why adjuncts would be less qualified teachers than full professors.

But then I think back to my own college experience and pause. Are adjuncts terrible teachers? Some of the best and most interesting classes I took in college were taught by part-time faculty and even grad students. They were deeply passionate about the subjects they taught, and despite their lack of experience, they were engaging and taught in a way that helped me remember the material. Is my experience the exception to the rule?

Well there’s a study out that says otherwise. In 2013, Northwestern University conducted a research study on 15,000 college freshmen to see if adjunct faculty members or full-time tenured faculty produced more successful students. The study focused on two key metrics: how likely students were to take more classes in the subject taught and how well a course prepared them for future coursework.

The results were fascinating. Consistently, the researchers found that students taught by adjuncts are far more likely to pursue more courses in the subject that was taught. They also did much better in future classes they took than students who learned from tenured faculty. This was true regardless of the teachers’ grading standards, the subject, or how qualified the students were. So according to this study, adjuncts appear to be better teachers than tenured faculty.

Research from Northwestern shows that students of adjuncts are more prepared for future courses. Click To Tweet

Why is this? When it comes down to it, maybe adjuncts are just more motivated to teach well. Teaching may be a part-time job for them, but it’s also their full-time commitment on the university campus. Adjuncts aren’t involved in campus politics or caught up in the rigorous demands of research and chasing down tenure. They’re here for one purpose and one alone: to teach the next generation of students. And many of them love doing it.

If this isn’t a teaching problem—maybe it’s a support problem

If adjuncts really are great teachers, then why the drama? Why the age-old stereotype of the incompetent grad student teacher who makes the lives of freshmen so difficult? Well, it might be that our entire college system is set up for adjuncts to fail.

One particular study found that only 7% of department chairs provide a teaching mentor for their adjunct and contingent faculty members. A whopping 14% provided no support for their adjuncts at all. Is it really any wonder these adjuncts are struggling if they have no help and no one to consult?

Beyond limited academic support and a lack of necessary resources in the classroom, adjuncts also get practically no time to prepare. Many universities take a “just in time” approach to hiring adjuncts that gives them very limited time to plan a course, build a syllabus, and be ready to teach. One survey of 500 contingent faculty members discovered that 17% of respondents got less than two weeks to prepare their class from the day they were hired. Another 18% got three weeks or less, which was better but not by much.

The survey also discovered that adjuncts are deeply dedicated to their students. Although adjuncts receive almost no support in their teaching role and are usually responsible for any financial costs associated with their classes, they work very hard to make sure any disadvantages they experience do not negatively affect their students.

When it comes down to it, adjuncts care most about student success. Those that responded to surveys consistently expressed a desire for students to love the subject the adjunct taught and go on to great careers and bright futures.

It’s time for a helping hand

The real question is, why on earth are we not doing more to make adjuncts’ lives easier? If they really are the main teaching force on college campuses—and every source out there indicates they are—then why not get them the resources they need?

There are many ways university administrators and full-time faculty can make their campuses a more welcoming place for adjuncts. In fact, doing so is just as much for the good of students as for the adjuncts themselves.

Now we can all appreciate that paying adjuncts a higher living wage isn’t always possible. It needs to be a goal for any university, but even if it’s not a realistic target, there are other impactful ways leaders and admins can help adjuncts do their job as well as they’d like to. Here are four pointers that come up over and over again in the research:

  1. Make room on campus—This stressor is cited again and again as a difficulty for adjuncts. Lack of storage space, lack of offices, and lack of space where they can meet with students is a huge problem that makes adjuncts’ lives more difficult than necessary. Even if you don’t have the power to free up space around campus, offer an adjunct your office for an afternoon so they can meet with their students. It’s a small gesture that would go a really long way.
  2. Connect with adjuncts as a mentor or a friend—Adjuncts need emotional support and a listening ear to help them navigate difficulties in the classroom. Even for adjuncts who are highly experienced, connecting with faculty around campus is an important way to help these adjuncts feel less isolated. They often feel like outsiders on campus simply because they’re not in the typical tenure track. Try befriending an adjunct faculty member or connecting adjuncts with other adjuncts.
  3. Create opportunities for adjuncts to be full time—A recent study in the Journal of Higher Ed discovered that a whopping 73% of adjuncts want a full-time position teaching. Underemployment is a top job satisfaction issue that most adjuncts suffer. Opportunities for professional development and small incentives like teaching awards were also cited as simple ways to help adjuncts feel motivated and excited about their jobs. If you’re an administrator, you can provide small successes like these.
  4. End the stigmas—This same study on job satisfaction found that a lack of acceptance by tenured faculty and administrators was actually the biggest factor preventing adjuncts from feeling satisfied with their jobs. Tenured faculty often take it for granted that adjuncts are underqualified and something we could easily live without. If nothing else, I hope this entire article has proven how untrue that myth is. Adjuncts are highly important in the college system. Encouraging tenured professors to treat adjuncts with respect is a tiny effort that will pay off high dividends.
The Journal of Higher Ed found that 73% of adjuncts want a full-time teaching position. Click To Tweet

If you haven’t figured out where I stand on this issue, then here it is: adjuncts are not hijacking our universities; if anything, they’re the glue that holds them together.

Taking real steps to support adjuncts in their role and making sure they have access to the resources they need is a hugely important endeavor. And look at the bright side. If external stressors are the reason why adjuncts are struggling that means that positive change isn’t as far off or as complicated as it may appear.

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