MAXWELL: More part-time professors, more dropouts

4/20/2008 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

As Florida lawmakers slash the budget for higher education, forcing university officials to freeze the hiring of full-time professors while hiring more part-timers, I want them to be aware of the findings of a recently published study by the American Educational Research Association.
I learned of study in the April 4 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The findings, confirming what honest educators and students have known all along, show that first-year college students are more likely to drop out of their high-stakes “gatekeeper courses” and perhaps leave college altogether if their instructors are part-timers.
Audrey Jaeger, an assistant professor of higher education at North Carolina University and the study’s lead author, and M. Kevin Eagan Jr., a graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles, wrote the study based on their research from 2002 to 2005 at four public four-year universities in a Southeastern state.
They analyzed the transcripts of 30,000 students in first-year gatekeeper courses such as Chemistry 101, Biology 101 and English courses that count toward graduation. Gatekeeper courses enroll 90 or more students, and the students must pass them to advance in a course sequence.
The research shows that when part-time adjuncts, lecturers, or postdoctoral fellows taught these courses, which was the case from 8 to 22 percent of the time on some campuses, students were far less likely to come back for their sophomore year. Conversely, if graduate assistants and full-time non-tenure-track instructors taught the courses, students fared well and advanced to the next course in the sequence.
Why? The answer is as old as it is simple: Students need to spend quality time with their professors after class. Studies show that students need and want to discuss coursework and related subjects and ideas with their teachers.
But because they are teaching two or more courses elsewhere or holding down full-time jobs in their profession, postdoctoral fellows, lecturers and adjuncts do not have real ties to the campuses. They come only as they are needed to stand in front of a room. Graduate assistants and full-time non-tenure-track instructors, on the other hand, have solid ties to the campuses and spend ample time there.
I am intimately familiar with the findings of the Jaeger and Eagan study because I have been an underpaid adjunct professor at two public community colleges and two large public universities. In each situation, I came to campus after my day job and left as soon as I could for dinner with my family. I did not have an office on either campus, and I did not know my full-time colleagues. I was a virtual stranger on the campuses.
When my students and I spoke, we did so standing in hallways, in stairwells, in parking lots or in teachers’ lounges. In short, I did not spend quality time with my students as I did when I was a full-time professor with regular office hours.
And because I was part-time and overstretched, I did not – and could not – prepare as well as I should have for my classes. Indeed, I was cheating my students. But the institutions were saving big bucks on me. After all, besides my low pay, I, along with the dozens of other part-timers, did not qualify for any benefits. We were cheap labor.
During a recent panel discussion in New York, Jaeger and Eagan stated emphatically that they were not blaming part-timers for the problem. Instead, they hoped that their research would persuade administrators to give part-timers more resources, such as more office space, suitable places to gather that would allow for more contact with students. For sure, adjuncts teaching gatekeeper classes should have far fewer students.
The Chronicle reported that Leonard Baird, a professor at Ohio State and editor of the Journal of Higher Education, warned against relying on so many adjuncts: “Could administrators be shown a cost-benefit analysis that might demonstrate that the money they save by hiring these people is outweighed, or even overwhelmed, by the revenue they lose when students drop out?”
More than ever, universities nationwide, with Florida’s being notable examples, are forced to hire more and more part-timers. The Chronicle states that from 1970 to 2005, the last year figures were available, the number of adjuncts rose from 22.1 percent to 47.6 percent. I can only guess what the percentage is today.
As the Jaeger and Eagan study shows, we are not saving money when our first-year students drop out of gatekeeper classes because they are dissatisfied with the quality of instruction.