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!