President's Blog

 

A topic of frequent discussion and debate in higher education is the impact of part-time instructors (also known as adjunct faculty) on the quality of education. As the percentage of part-time faculty increases at all types of colleges and universities, more and more studies raise concerns about correlations with academic success, student retention and graduation rates. Articles appear regularly advocating the need for better employment conditions for adjuncts (e.g., higher pay, benefits, better integration into the life of the institution).

My own experience is that adjunct instruction is typically high quality. Despite their part-time status, most adjunct faculty I have known and worked with take their teaching very seriously and do everything possible to help and support students. Especially in pre-professional programs, adjunct faculty bring real world experience, currency and applicability to the classroom in ways full-time faculty cannot. Part-time faculty may be less versed in research methodologies, but often are more connected to the work our graduates will do after graduation.

A recent study presented at the Association for the Study of Higher Education annual conference is entitled, “The Effect of Part-time Faculty on Students’ Degree and/or Certificate Completion at Two-Year Community Colleges.” While the data analyzed and the study findings relate more directly to two-year institutions, I found the study helpful and applicable to all types of colleges and universities.

One of the key findings of these researchers was that part-time faculty had “no negative impact on student degree or certificate attainment.” It didn’t necessarily have a positive impact either. Rather, lower completion rates were more closely related to the size of the institution, the location of the institution and the student’s high school GPA.

Unfortunately, the summary of the research I read provided few details related to these findings. The importance of the size of the institution and the student’s high school GPA correlate with other research on multiple perspectives of student learning.

Students typically learn better and achieve greater success in environments with smaller class size, more personal attention and direct interaction with the faculty (whether full-time or part-time). Regardless of the type of institution, more able students entering college (higher high school GPA’s, college prep courses in high school, etc.) tend to do better academically and are both retained and graduate at higher levels. The impact of geographic location is less explicable. Perhaps it relates to resources of the campus, access to the campus by adjunct faculty, access to the faculty by students, etc.

This study is not a license to increase the percentage of instruction provided by part-time faculty. Nor is it a defense against improving the employment conditions for part-time faculty. But what it affirms for me is the professionalism and commitment of all faculty. Regardless of status, terms of contract, etc., faculty members, full-time and part-time, care deeply about their students, work hard to help them succeed, and are diligent in their efforts to provide the highest quality instruction possible.

I often ask students to tell me about their courses. From time to time, I hear about a “bad” professor. Typically this means boring or a hard grader. But I always hear accounts of great professors who make student success their highest priority. Think about your own college experience. I am sure you remember the best faculty members who impacted your success. And I doubt you even know if s/he was full-time or part-time!

ON BEHALF OF THE ENTIRE AMC COMMUNITY,

WE HOPE YOU AND YOUR FAMILY

HAVE A WONDERFUL

AND RESTFUL THANKSGIVING!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

Last week I shared some recent research on the issue of the value of a college degree. A study entitled, The Economics of BA Ambivalence: The Case of California Higher Education provides a more balanced perspective on the return on investment of a college education. While concluding that a degree is likely worth the investment, the findings of this study suggest that the question of value is not simplistic and requires additional analysis. According to their findings, the ambivalence to a college education expressed by many families and prospective students may be more justified than some of us may realize.

The authors point out that too many studies about this issue assume best case scenarios that likely create a bias in their findings. For example, most other studies assume that the student completes his/her baccalaureate degree in four years. In fact, many graduates take five years or more and a good number drop out before completing their degree. Some begin at a community college and complete their bachelors degrees at a four-year institution.

The authors also clarify that most other studies determine their estimated earning power on pre-tax earnings without consideration of progressive tax rates. These other studies also assume a single rate of economic return without consideration of the graduates ability, the chosen profession, the economy, etc. Their point is that the investment in a college degree, while clearly worthwhile, has a degree of risk. A college degree is a good investment for both the individual and society, but factors like rising tuition rates and the widening distribution of earnings among those completing baccalaureate degrees has increased the risk for every college graduate to recoup his/her investment, earn enough to repay loans, and increase overall earnings in their lifetime.

As indicated last week, the data analysis for this study was drawn from the California higher education system. While this educational system of public institutions may not mirror all of higher education, this study is broadly illustrative. Furthermore, the California job market and economy may not be typical of every state or region, but this study identifies clearly the complexity of this issue and the types of analyses necessary before drawing unequivocal conclusions. Here are their key findings:

The BA is a good investment for the average student. The graduates earnings will be greater and outpace interest rates on loans.

The BA is a good investment for both society and the individual. College graduates contribute more to the economic stability of the community and their increased earnings help to fuel the economy.

The investment in a BA is increasingly risky. Because of rising tuition rates and the potential of low earnings in certain professions, more college graduates will experience student loan problems in the years following graduation.

What can be done about this? This study concludes with these helpful insights. They suggest that students should receive more and better advising about their choices of a major, postgraduate study and career pursuits. Students need to be better informed about the economic realities of some professions.

They also contend that students need to be better informed about their options for financing their college education. There are a good number of income-based and income contingent repayment plans. The enrollment levels in these programs are low, likely because of a lack of awareness.

The conclusion to their study provides both the optimism and reality necessary:

College remains a good investment for both individuals and the state but it is a stepping stone to the middle class not a ticket. As such, it deserves the scrutiny an individual would give to any risky investment.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

Posted by on in President's Blog

One of the topics I write and speak about regularly is the value of a college degree. While affordability is a major challenge facing prospective students, I continue to believe that there is an indisputable value in earning a college degree. I gave two presentations just in the past two weeks on challenges facing higher education. I was not surprised to be questioned about whether or not the investment in higher education is really worth it. People hear about the high costs of education and observe the continued challenges in the economy.

If you read my blog every week, you know that I am constantly referencing research that clearly supports the return on investment in higher education. Despite the anecdotal evidence to the contrary, almost every study I have read demonstrates that a college degree more than pays for itself over the course of the graduates lifetime in terms of income, professional success, community engagement and happiness.

A study published by College Summit provides even broader evidence of the value of a college degree. College Summit is a national organization that partners with high schools to help to increase the college enrollment rates of youth from low-income communities. They currently work with 180 high schools across the country helping to provide professional development, coaching, and peer influencers. This organization serves 50,000 students annually in 12 states.

Their latest research entitled Smart Shoppers: The End of the College for All Debate? not only provides evidence of the need for more and more college graduates to meet the employment demands of this country, but also that a college degree even helps in those professions typically not requiring an advanced degree. According to this report, even in careers like plumbing and hairdressing, those holding a college degree tend to earn more than their less educated peers.

But a study just released entitled, The Economics of BA Ambivalence: The Case of California Higher Education provides a more nuanced and thorough understanding of this important issue. The study uses data drawn from the University of California System, the states research campuses, and the California State University System, the less selective state college system. While this study focuses on a single state and parts of the state system (i.e., not including private, independent colleges), I think the results are widely applicable and certainly informative for all of higher education.

The authors of this study frame their research in light of the growing ambivalence towards higher education by Americans. Their understanding of ambivalence is drawn from an article written by the well- respected national commentator, Ron Brownstein, which appeared in the National Journal Magazine on September 29, 2012. The article was entitled, Struggling to Advance, and responded to the reality that a majority of Americans now define success as not falling behind. They worry that fundamental changes in the economy are making it more difficult for them—and their children—to get ahead.”

Referencing polls conducted by the Heartland Monitor, Brownstein writes,

“The most fundamental question about the next generation evokes the most unease. Asked if today’s children will have more opportunities than older Americans, only 32 percent said yes. In the four times the Heartland Monitor has tested that question since 2009, no more than one-third of Americans have ever said they expect the next generation to enjoy greater opportunities. In the new poll, an equal 32 percent said they believed today’s children will have less opportunity to get ahead, while the remaining 31 percent said their opportunities would be unchanged. As in earlier surveys, whites remain far more pessimistic than minorities: Just 25 percent of whites believe the next generation will have more opportunity than our own, while 38 percent expect their opportunities to diminish. (College-educated whites are as pessimistic as noncollege whites, who have borne larger job and income losses in recent decades.) By contrast, 51 percent of minorities believe today’s children will have more opportunity than they did, while only 20 percent believe they will have less.

Those anxious responses partly reflect ambivalence, especially among blue-collar whites, about the economic value of a college education. Although studies show that workers with college degrees earn significantly more money over their lifetimes than those without one, just 38 percent of those polled said they viewed a college education as a ‘ticket to the middle class,’ while 54 percent said it was ‘an economic burden that is often too expensive and requires taking on debt to pay for.’ Three-fifths of both whites with college degrees and minorities (with and without degrees) saw such education as a source of advancement, but whites without a college degree split in half on whether the benefits of college justified the cost.”

Next week I will share the results of this study. A college degree is definitely worth it, but the issue may be more complex.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

One of the classic stereotypes in all of education relates to the tension between faculty and administrators. Like all stereotypes, there is certainly some truth to this. Having worked in both K-12 and higher education for decades as both a teacher and an administrator I have experienced cases where faculty thought their voices were not being heard and administrators thought they were not receiving the support they deserved. This stereotype is enforced when the media pays much closer attention to votes of no confidence and denials of tenure, but rarely covers a story about harmony and cooperation on campus.

But a recent survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education tells a different story. Last August and September, The Chronicle conducted an online survey with 431 public and private, non-profit four-year colleges throughout the country. The survey was directed to the chief academic officers on each campus (provost or vice president for academic affairs) and the faculty in leadership positions (heads of faculty senates, faculty representatives on governing boards). The Chronicle received responses from 325 institutions including 254 faculty leaders and 175 academic leaders.

Despite the fact that faculty leaders were typically less positive than administrators in their assessment, a majority of both groups rated relations on campus as good or very good. Even more, a vast majority of respondents rated relations between faculty and administrators as improving on their campuses. Finally, almost 75% of the faculty who responded said that they trusted their administration to look out for the best interests of their institution.

Clearly, there are still areas of disagreement and tension. Faculty are more concerned about the trend to use an increased number of part-time faculty and adjuncts to provide instruction. Faculty also continue to desire greater involvement in decision making about budgets and expenditures. And 10% of the faculty respondents rated relations on their campuses as poor or very poor.

Especially interesting to me was the repeated observation that any significant problems in relations between faculty and administrators were caused more by the behaviors of specific individuals rather than a pervasive level of distrust or disrespect. This certainly correlates with my experience.

A small group of faculty or a single administrator can often ignite a level of tension and acrimony. But the overwhelming majority of faculty and administrators are collegial and share a commitment to the best interests of their institutions. They may disagree from time to time as to how best to reach the goal, but they overwhelmingly agree on the goal.

The fact is that a degree of tension between faculty and administrators is both normal and healthy. By definition, faculty advocate for academic programs, student quality and resources to support teaching, learning, scholarship and professional development. This is their job. This is their professional responsibility. These issues are critical to the academic integrity that they hold dear.

While administrators share these values, they must balance academic and faculty needs with broader institutional demands. No institution I know has the resources to support fully every program and every need. These complementary needs and demands create levels of dialogue and discussion that are central to a vibrant college.

Life on a college campus is rarely perfect. But faculty and administrators work side by side every day in the best interests of our students. Maybe someday you will see a story about this!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

I have been teaching for over forty years. In some ways, my approach to the teaching-learning process has not changed. I still try to engage every student, present information in ways that challenge their thinking, and encourage active learning.

But in other ways, things are different. I have finally given up my piece of chalk (although I have some in my desk just in case a blackboard suddenly reappears). I use PowerPoints, videos and assign electronic databases. I post assignments, grades and receive assignments online.

I made a decision a few years ago that I would not allow cell phones or computers in my class. I put this on the top of my syllabus and go over it on the first day. Unless students have an emergency where they might need to be contacted, phones and computers are off and out of sight.

A recent study conducted by the University of Nebraska was published in The Journal of Media Education. The study provided the results of a survey with 777 students (mostly undergraduate) at six colleges and universities regarding their use of digital devices in class for non-class purposes. The results should come as no surprise in a world where so many people have their cell phones out 24 hours a day emailing, texting, and even waking up during the middle of the night just to answer a message.

Ninety-two percent of the respondents indicated that they used their devices for non-class purposes in class. On average, undergraduates said they used these devices at least 11 times per day in class. Here is the breakdown:

Frequency of Student Device Use in Class for Non-Class Purposes, Per Day

Never

8%

1-3 times

35%

4-10 times

27%

11-30 times

16%

More than 30 times

15%

Types of Uses

Texting

86%

Checking the Time

79%

Email

68%

Social Networking

66%

Web Surfing

38%

Games

8%

When asked why they used their devices in class, even though they admitted that it was a distraction to them and classmates, they identified these “advantages:”

-staying connected (70%)

-avoiding boredom (55%)

-doing related classwork (49%)

Needless to say, most professors expressed frustration about this phenomenon. But what I found particularly interesting were some of the comments from professors who were less concerned about the use of devices.

Some are trying to integrate the use of electronic devices into classroom instruction … encouraging students to find relevant research or commentary at the same time that the professor is leading a discussion. Others put the burden on the faculty. While it may be a more realistic comment at institutions where class size is small, one professor said if students are bored or more interested in connecting with friends, maybe that’s an assessment of teaching style.

I plan to teach again in the Spring semester. I am rethinking my policy on electronic devices.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)