Are Adjunct Professors Bad for Students?

A few months ago, adjunct faculty (sometimes called contingent faculty) got a bad rap. A study reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education concluded that college students who take their introductory courses from adjuncts are more likely to drop out of school. My own experiences as a student and as a graduate teaching assistant made me skeptical of this claim and spurred me to take a closer look.

Audrey Jaeger, an assistant professor of higher education at North Carolina State University and M. Kevin Eagan Jr., a graduate student at UCLA, conducted their research at four public universities in North Carolina. They found that college students who take their introductory courses from adjuncts are more likely to change majors, enroll in a different university, or drop out of school entirely.

The problem, the authors say, is not that part-timers necessarily teach poorly but that they don’t have the necessary campus ties to actively “connect” with students. Jaeger and Eagan believe that this is because part-time faculty have fewer out-of-class interactions – holding office hours and meeting with students – of the sort that create a “connection” between students and faculty.

Although some people are using this study to attack the employment of adjunct faculty, Jaeger and Eagan do not go that far. During a recent panel discussion in New York, they said emphatically that they were not blaming part-timers for the apparent problem. Instead, they hoped that their research would persuade administrators to give part-timers more resources, such as more office space, to allow for more contact with students.

But I don’t think that Jaeger and Eagan have proven their case. They fail to draw some important distinctions – between students and between teachers – and they do not present any real evidence that having a “connection” matters when students decide to drop out. Their study strikes me as composed of mostly unexplored correlations.

The first serious problem is that Jaeger and Eagan fail to consider that adjunct professors often don’t get the same quality of student that regular faculty do. Part-time faculty, Jaeger and Eagan acknowledge, tend to teach courses at less-attractive times because regular faculty get first choice. But they don’t carry this point to its logical conclusion. Those sections are frequently filled with students who have waited until the last minute to enroll, have given relatively little thought to their courses, and don’t really want to be there. Students in my Thursday evening recitations, a time when most would rather be partying, were often ill-prepared, weak students, or absent altogether.

Therefore, through no fault of their own, the adjuncts are likely to have a higher percentage of weak students. It is unwarranted to conclude that adjuncts are necessarily responsible for the higher rate of dropping out among their students.

Secondly, in their study, Jaeger and Eagan did not include years of teaching experience or whether a lecturer has a Ph.D. or other advanced degree. Part-time faculty members range from doctoral dropouts to semi-retired professors who have spent entire careers in the field. The latter can be at least as good at teaching their courses as full-time professors. For example, professor Michael Sanera teaches one Introduction to American Politics course at N.C. State University each semester as an adjunct professor. Before moving to North Carolina, he spent 20 years teaching full-time, the last fourteen as a tenured professor at Northern Arizona University. Other than his not having his own office, he says that he is teaching his part-time course no differently than the way he courses during his full-time career.

Like Sanera, many adjunct professors are experienced and diligent. As a student, I took courses from several adjunct professors and never noticed any difference in teaching or availability to students. One such professor taught at both N.C. State and Duke and still found time to hold regular study sessions. It’s a mistake to criticize them generally for the shortcomings of some.

Most important, Jaeger and Eagan offer little evidence that a missing “connection” prevents adjuncts from teaching effectively. They claim that students exposed to adjunct faculty have “fewer meaningful interactions with those faculty and thus become less integrated into the campus academic culture.” It is true that adjuncts usually share offices on campus (as I did as a graduate teaching assistant) and are only there for a short period of time on class days. But that does not necessarily mean that they aren’t accessible to students. Jaeger and Eagan merely assume that students interact less frequently with part-time professors than they do with tenured faculty; they don’t prove it. Nor do they prove that the reason why some students drop out is that they don’t get enough attention from their adjunct professors.

Moreover, their logic seemed backward to me. As a TA, I noticed that weaker and more vulnerable students seldom sought out-of-class interactions me, regardless of my own availability.

Karen Palasek, a part-time professor with 24 years’ teaching experience says that current requirements at most schools where she has taught (including Peace College, N.C. State, and Campbell University) allow adjuncts to be as dedicated or lackadaisical as they choose. “It’s possible to do very little work and still fulfill your contract,” she explained. While most schools only “request” that part-time faculty hold regular office hours, Palasek makes a point to be available before or after class, and usually an additional hour at another time during the week. She also spends a lot of time emailing, taking phone calls, posting information on Blackboard and arranging tutorials.

Many departments have already incorporated some of Jaeger and Eagan’s suggestions into their contracts for part-time faculty. At N.C. State, Professor Andrew Taylor, chairman of the political science department, says, “We request at least two office hours per week. We also like [part-time faculty] to be available to students in other ways.” Email has been a boon to part-time faculty and students, making it easier to communicate than in the past. In fact, when I taught, more students instant-messaged me during my “virtual office hours” than ever visited my campus office.

Professor Sanera explained that as a part-time faculty member, he makes appointments, often via email, to see students either before or after class and is available at his off-campus office. He is also available most of the time via the telephone. According to Taylor, the department makes it a priority to get the best adjuncts “on multi-course contracts that may require some advising responsibilities and add benefits.” The prolonged nature of the contracts and the advising role add more opportunities for part-time faculty to connect with students.

Jaeger and Eagan note in their study that part-time faculty are as much as 80 percent less expensive to employ than full-time faculty. Given those data, it’s likely that cost-benefit analysis would confirm the conventional wisdom that part-time professors can provide schools with a lot of educational value at a low cost.

There is no reason to think that adjuncts are necessarily bad choices for teaching “gatekeeper” courses, or any others. Naturally, schools should closely monitor their courses, as they do with graduate students, to make sure they are doing what’s expected, as they should for all faculty members. If they don’t perform up to standards, they won’t be rehired — an incentive lacking with tenured professors.