Does It Matter That Your Professor Is Part Time?

Adjunct faculty save colleges and students money but could erode the quality of education.

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As colleges face increasing costs, the traditional tweed-coated, pipe-smoking, comfortable-job-for-life full-time professor appears to be going the way of the dodo bird. Nowadays, the typical college professor is a part-timer, moonlighting for extra cash or prestige, or "freeway flying"—cobbling together a teaching career with several classes at different colleges.

Some students are benefiting from adjuncts' lower costs and, often, more practical, up-to-date instruction, of course. But there's also considerable evidence that the proliferation of adjunct professors—many of whom don't have Ph.D.'s—is dumbing down many classrooms and contributing to grade inflation.

Despite 20 years of booming enrollment and skyrocketing tuition, colleges have been quietly filling the majority of new openings with part-time or short-contract adjunct professors (also often called "visiting professors," "instructors," or "lecturers") instead of the traditional assistant professors who have a chance to work up to a full tenured job. In fact, the nation's graduate schools are now pumping out hundreds more Ph.D.'s each year in some disciplines than there are tenure-track openings available. The trend has become so pervasive that about two thirds of America's college instructors are now adjuncts.

That's generated tremendous savings for colleges. On average, traditional professors, who have tenure (or lifetime job guarantees), benefits, and campus offices, cost colleges the equivalent of about $8,000 per three-credit class, one recent study found. Adjuncts, the vast majority of whom teach only one or two courses at any particular college, cost their employers an average of about $1,800 per course. Schools not only pay adjuncts less per classroom hour but often don't offer benefits or support such as offices or secretaries.

Acceleration. A few schools, such as Arizona State University, are responding to current budget shortfalls by laying off adjunct faculty. But looming financial problems are likely, over the long term, to cause many colleges to "accelerate the hiring of adjuncts," says Jane Wellman, director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability.

Indeed, many of the fastest-growing schools have eliminated tenure altogether. Western Governors University, a 10-year-old private, nonprofit online university, has found that non-Ph.D.'s, on average, do a better job of motivating and counseling students through the school's computerized lessons. And the freedom to release employees whose students fail improves the quality of the education, says Robert Mendenhall, WGU's president.

Many traditional colleges claim adjunct-taught classes are better for students than, for example, classes taught by graduate students.

Texas Woman's University Provost Kay Clayton says raising the share of part-time faculty about 4 percentage points to 44 percent in the past five years might be helping her students. For instance, by hiring moonlighting nurses for about $3,000 per course to teach some nursing classes, the school helped keep this year's tuition at $6,500 a year and, Clayton says, provided better teachers. "That is a real benefit to the students, because they are practitioners and bring in a wealth of experience," she says.

In fact, one study found that in some fields—especially technical and career-related programs such as psychology, architecture, and finance—students who are taught by professionals serving as part-time instructors appear to perform better academically. Such students also take more courses in the subject.

But that study (and others) found, in addition, that the students of adjuncts who are teaching the basic academic disciplines, such as English, history, and pure sciences, are more likely to drop out.

Despite that troubling research, more than half of all English professors are now not on the tenure track. And many adjuncts say most colleges provide them with so little support, job security, and money that it is inevitable that their students will underperform.

Corrected on 11/13/08: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Western Governors University. WGU is a 10-year-old private, nonprofit online university offering undergraduate and graduate degrees.