David R. Henderson  

Do College Students Get a Bad Break from Adjuncts?

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In a guest post at Megan McArdle's blog yesterday, former political science professor Laura McKenna lays out some interesting data on colleges. She notes a shift of fairly high-quality students from private colleges to government colleges. The reason, she notes, is obvious: it's so much cheaper and students are starting to revolt at the huge debt with which they would emerge from private colleges. She, and I, see this as good news.

But, writes McKenna, there is some bad news:

[A] growing number of faculty at state or public colleges are adjunct instructors. Adjuncts are temporary faculty members who teach classes for low pay, no benefits. They do not have the protections of tenure. They are often not unionized. 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges are adjuncts. The number of adjunct faculty has increased dramatically over time. LinkedIn reports that it is the fastest growing job description.

She lays out two more paragraphs about bad news. Why is this bad news? Isn't this low-priced labor force that wants to be there a major factor in keeping tuitions lower than otherwise and saving money for the taxpayer?

She finally gets around to telling us why it's bad news and here it is. Are you ready?

All these adjuncts are bad news for undergraduates at the public colleges. Many adjuncts are excellent teachers, but their temporary status and their exclusion from faculty meetings means that students can't rely on them for advice on course selection. It's difficult to develop relationships with faculty that may not have their own offices or might teach at multiple schools. It's also hard to be an excellent professor when you're poor and your career is unstable.

I'm not sure how many faculty meetings she attended when she was a political science professor. I've probably attended more than 100 over my 30-plus years in academia. I can recall zero meetings I attended that would have helped me advise my students on course selection. In fact, I often learn what the students like or dislike about my colleagues by listening to--my students. By the way, one piece of advice I give my students is to take the professor, not the course. If you learn good things about a professor, take his/her course almost no matter what it is. If you notice an interesting course title but hear almost uniformly bad things about the professor--not bad things like "he's a tough grader" but bad things like "he's boring"--then don't take the course. Will this rule always lead you right? No. But it will lead you right more than the opposite rule.

I'll grant Ms. McKenna's point about relationships with faculty when adjuncts are hopping from one gig to another. I'm guessing, though, that the tradeoff is worth it: less contact but substantially lower tuition.

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COMMENTS (26 to date)
Ken B writes:

This whole thing sounds like a forced and artifical way to portray things she dislikes, in some measure for (one suspects) ideological reasons, as costs to students: 'non-union', 'low-pay', no tenure. But these are not costs to students at all.

Actually I can think of a way adjuncts are good for students. It is institutionally easier to judge them on their teaching skills. Many university administrations, and tenure committees, place little value on the quality undergraduate teaching. I think you can see the this attitude peek through her comments. This is hard to change. It's easier with adjuncts.

rpl writes:
[Adjuncts] are often not unionized.
Are regular faculty unionized at many universities? Certainly they never have been at any I've ever attended.

Based on my own observations, I'd say that adjuncts are a pretty good deal for students, but that the current state of adjuncting won't last. Adjuncting is a a lot of work for low total compensation. People put up with it because most of them believe that it's a stepping stone to a regular faculty position. Once that illusion is dispelled, I would expect that fewer people will be willing to do the job, pushing compensation up. I would also expect quality to fall, for similar reasons. Doing the job well is a lot of work, and many adjuncts currently bring a lot of dedication to the job because they view it as paying their dues in a career they care about. When it becomes more clear that adjuncting is (mostly) a dead-end, I would expect to see more clock-punchers in adjunct positions.

Tim writes:

I was a tenured associate professor and I quit. Now that I'm in business, I love to go back and teach just maybe one course a year as an adjunct. I have no desire to return to an academic lifestyle--I hated the committee meetings, the hiring battles, etc. I liked teaching when I was actually in the classroom with non-gen ed students or in my office preparing slides, and I liked the kids. Too bad that was only 1/4 or less of my work life.

While there are many adjuncts that are wannabe professors who can't find a full-time gig, there are many like me who have other jobs, but enjoy keeping connected with the university and think they have something to offer to college students that's a little different from the straight academic perspective of their full-time faculty. It ain't for the money, I can tell you: adjunct course pay is about enough to pay for the gas and maybe a beer on the way home from class.

MikeDC writes:

I have to laugh at this because in my time as an adjunct, I was repeatedly asked to attend meetings and take on committee work. Of course, that counted for nothing when a full time position became available! Hence, I'm back to actually working for a living in the private sector.

With respect to students, I had a harder time serving students because it was harder for me to direct them to the right people since I didn't know the right people. Likewise, letters of recommendation from adjunct instructors, I think, aren't going to sound very impressive.

On the other hand, I think a class of 30 being taught by a cheap adjunct is probably better than a class of 300 being taught by an expensive professor, other things being equal.

Better and cheaper than either is probably an well designed and responsive online system.

ATF writes:

Why would anyone need to rely on adjuncts for course selection advice anyway? If I have a question I'll just email and/or visit one of the department advisors I trust. Plus if you have special goals in mind (grad school admissions is one that comes to mind) you can get as good or better course selection advice on various message boards than you'll get from faculty.

One factor that may account for the large number of adjuncts is that some big state U's have to offer remedial courses because many freshmen are very poorly prepared. The large directional state university I attend offers over a dozen sections of high school level algebra and precalculus classes every semester. They're usually taught by graduate students and adjuncts. They obviously do not need to hire active research mathematicians to teach that stuff, so instead they have the full professors teach upper level classes and deal with the high demand for low level stuff with adjuncts and graduate students.

It's actually good for the students in some ways. For example, as far as I can tell, the adjunct who teaches the one huge section of precalculus every semester at my school has made it her specialty to teach that class perfectly — semester after semester. The alternative would be having a rotation of tenured profs who are used to teaching graduate students and math majors trying to teach very basic math to kids who do not what to do math at all, which just doesn't work very well (or so I hear).

It may be different at other universities.

ColoComment writes:

Is this not a perfect example (albeit in academia & disguised as concern for students) of the desire to avoid competition to which Don Boudreaux refers in his letter to the WSJ that comments on David Malpass's recent op/ed re: Greece (see, cafehayek.com, 5/24/2012)?

Don says, "Few diagnoses of the eurozone’s woes are as compelling as that offered today by David Malpass (“Greece’s False Austerity“). Key is this line: 'Europe’s battle comes down to government-guaranteed wages and benefits versus labor flexibility. Europe’s failing governments simply won’t allow competition.' Mr. Malpass here echoes the concern that prompted F.A. Hayek to write The Road to Serfdom.

Substitute in tenured professors and adjuncts, respectively, for the italicized phrases, and see what you think?

Emily writes:

Are they by and large good teachers? I've heard complaints from faculty at two different four-year colleges about difficulty hiring the candidates they wanted as economics professors due to the low pay, and in both cases the pay they were referring to was two to three times what this article reports adjuncts who teach full-time are making in community colleges in PA. In a field with limited job options outside of teaching, I can imagine many good candidates willing to work for very low salaries, but how many competent economists are willing to teach for $2,500 a course?

Luke G. writes:

In my experience, the median student only has a vague knowledge about the credentials of a professor. They will understand two things, however: does my professor have a doctorate? Is my professor full-time or part-time? They understand that a part-time adjunct with only a Master's is less impressive than a full-time doc.

Thus, the major danger to universities is that they may dilute their brand with too many adjuncts. Students (and their bill-paying parents) want impressive and important professors, and not enough impressive and important professors will leave them dissatisfied.

Lorena writes:

Not looking to be lynched here but, in all honesty, you do not need "competent economists" to teach the economics courses largely taught by adjuncts these days. You need competent teachers. It is here where higher education too often fails to meet standards and, as students become more cost-sensitive, the more expensive schools the ones with more competent economists?)lose out. I, as a community college economics teacher, am happy to see the masses come through my door so that I can instill in them excitement about Economics and about lifelong learning in general.

Alex Godofsky writes:

By the way, one piece of advice I give my students is to take the professor, not the course. If you learn good things about a professor, take his/her course almost no matter what it is.

This is great advice if you are attending college for the entertainment value. If you are trying to acquire useful skills, not so much.

Lectures are the least important part of college. A structured syllabus and external, objective motivations to learn the material are the most important.

Clay writes:

Great post. Adjuncts are often high quality teachers, and usually love to teach on the side of their main job.

rpl writes:
... there are many like me who have other jobs, but enjoy keeping connected with the university and think they have something to offer to college students ...
How many is "many"? In my experience the proportion of adjuncts that fit that description is vanishingly small. Most of the people I know who have moonlighted as adjuncts gave it up within a semester or two because it just takes too much time, particularly when it's on top of a job that demands 40-50 hours a week, plus family duties, etc. It's a lot to ask for the dubious pleasure of teaching a survey course where half the students are there mostly to tick a requirement box. If there's someone out there who's doing that on top of a full-time job and finding it an amusing pastime, I'd have to question whether they're really putting in the time that the job requires.

Come to think of it, all of the people I know who have stuck with adjuncting have been teaching in one of the weirdly-specific degree programs that seem to crop up all over the DC area. Those guys are teaching exactly the same stuff that they work on in their day job, which probably eases the time burden and raises the interest level. But that's more like bringing in an expert guest lecturer to teach a class on an esoteric subject than it is traditional adjuncting.

There's also the fact that moonlight adjuncts are really only available in certain cities. You can probably find them in Boston or Washington, but they're going to be pretty thin on the ground in, say, a midwestern college town.

In light of all that, I don't see professionals moonlighting as adjuncts picking up the slack when traditional adjuncts (i.e., young PhDs in a holding pattern while they look for a real faculty job) figure out that there's no long-term career path there.

Ken B writes:

Re Lorena's comment: ROPE!


Actually you illistrate one of my points. The quality of teaching matters to community colleges, and their faculty, in a way it doesn't always at universities.

Saturos writes:

How many undergraduate students at how many colleges end up developing close learning relationships with their professors anyways? If they do, it's probably because it's a great professor, and then it doesn't matter if they're an adjunct.

@Alex Godofsky, I disagree, I think David is right on the money with his advice for students looking to actually learn more at college. You can learn more in any class with a great professor than in the most well-tailored course with mediocre professors. Just ask David's students.

@Ken B, @ColoComment, exactly.

Kitty_T writes:

I think rpl nails this.

Once the bulk of adjuncts truly come to grips with the fact that the Blue Fairy isn't going to come along to make them a real boy, schools relying on adjuncts will find themselves relying on hobbyists and lifers who aren't actually competent to do anything else.

The lack of tenure & job security doesn't strike me as a problem (probably a benefit), but the profound suckiness of adjuncting as it is currently practiced (low pay, no benefits like those provided to "real" faculty, no respect, no prospects) seems likely to lead to a real problem: basically, those who can, leaving.

Followed by a significant drop in the number of academically gifted students willing to take a crap-shoot on largely academic subjects (not a bad thing for the students, but probably a bad thing for the future quality of academics engaged in those subjects).

Foobarista writes:

Lorena: +1. University professors have less actual teacher training than employees at a good preschool. It appears that they're supposed to somehow magically become good instructors by virtue of their subject-matter mastery, which is a bit like saying that because you're a skilled car designer, you'll drive to victory at Daytona.

As for cost savings, the savings is definitely being captured by the bureaucracy and some rockstar faculty - definitely not students.

Emily writes:

I totally agree that the kinds of qualifications necessary for getting hired as an economics professor at a research university are not necessary to be a good teacher at a community college. But surely the skills you need to be a good economics (or math, or science) teacher translate to some significant degree to other employment, no? You don't have to be a terrific researcher, but you have to be highly numerate and good at communicating. I can imagine some number of people with those skills who are willing to do adjunct because they're hoping to get a tenure-track job, they love teaching, and/or they have other sources of income. But is that the norm?

I don't think this is definitive in any way, but I have some data in from of me from 2010 ACS. It has college major, wage income, and degree level, so I can look at PhD salaries. (Unfortunately, not PhD salaries by field of PhD - undergrad major will have to proxy for that.) For people under 65 with PhDs and undergrad STEM majors, average wage income (for everyone, regardless of employment status/part vs. full-time) is between $95,000 and $100,000 (with topcoding). Unemployment rate is just above 2%, not-in-labor-force rate is about 7% overall and 5% for men. Making $25,000 a year puts you in the bottom fifth, but the bottom fortieth of full-time, full-year workers. In a labor market like that, who's willing to take those jobs? The story doesn't change that dramatically if we look at people with master's degrees instead of PhDs.

The variables that I'm working with here are incwage, educd, age, empstat, and a stem variable derived from the two Field of degree [detailed version] variables.

Mike Hammock writes:

In my own limited experience, temporary instructors are more likely to be competing on the basis of teaching ability, rather, than research ability. Wouldn't this make pressure them to be better teachers? I would think the best teaching would come from adjunct professors and tenure-track-but-not-yet-tenured professors.

Maniel writes:

Nice post and very good comments. I believe that an emerging issue relates to students as consumers. In my view, we are moving back to the future, where students are more likely to save for or work their way through school as they become less eager to accumulate debt, where young people favor capability-oriented education as they begin to value jobs more than (unproductive) degrees, and where apprenticeship and less "academic" training take on higher value than a "renaissance-man" education. As costs rise and state budgets get squeezed, out-of-state (and foreign) students able to pay for them are beginning to take places in public universities once reserved for local high-school grads. The latter in turn will, in my opinion, become increasingly careful about how they spend their education dollars. The so-called "adjunct," with current workplace skills, is likely to be looked on more and more favorably by these careful consumers.

David Friedman writes:

"I, as a community college economics teacher, am happy to see the masses come through my door so that I can instill in them excitement about Economics and about lifelong learning in general."

I believe it.

When my daughter transferred to Chicago after two years at Oberlin, she was seriously considering majoring in economics. She decided on her alternative major after taking one economics class and concluding that it was more about mathematics than about economics. I corresponded with a professor there of whom I have a high opinion, and he agreed with her judgement.

Her brother, on the other hand, who is now finishing his first year at Chicago, took an introductory economics course and liked it. The teacher, as best I can tell, is not a regular faculty member (I'm not sure of his exact status), is someone who specializes in teaching the introductory economics courses--and also thinks the more advanced courses teach formalism rather than economic intuition.

On the general issue of adjuncts ... . I teach at a law school, and our adjuncts seem to be largely professionals, lawyers and even judges who teach one course for the fun of it. Along similar lines, I have twice taught a law and econ course at the local state university (which uses my book as the text for the course) for the fun of teaching a different sort of students.

Steve Horwitz writes:

A few thoughts:

1. We must distinguish among types of schools here. "Private universities" include everything from bigger research schools like a Harvard or Yale to liberal arts colleges like mine. Students who go to LACs are looking for faculty-student interaction and high-quality teaching. That's what they pay for and that's what we reward. Adjuncts at a place like ours are a problem because doing the job well requires institution-specific human capital and adjuncts have very little incentive to gain it and the institution has very little incentive to provide it.

2. Some adjuncts will indeed be better *teachers* than the regular faculty at research schools, no doubt. But others will be "hobbyists" and the like. Yet others will be cobbling together a living from adjuncting 5 courses across 3 schools - not a recipe for great teaching or much investment in students. My point? Generalizing about adjuncts is really, really problematic. It's worse when it's confounded with different types of schools.

3. David's advice about "take the professor not the course" is the same as I give. If you think college is about learning "useful skills," in the narrow sense of that term, you are in the wrong place. Save yourself A LOT of money and go to trade school. If you think college is about being challenged to think, to learn to communicate well, and to learn how to learn, then take the prof, not the course.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Steve H wrote:
3. David's advice about "take the professor not the course" is the same as I give. If you think college is about learning "useful skills," in the narrow sense of that term, you are in the wrong place. Save yourself A LOT of money and go to trade school. If you think college is about being challenged to think, to learn to communicate well, and to learn how to learn, then take the prof, not the course.

I absolutely disagree. Unless you are a rich kid with no plans to do anything substantial with your life, it doesn't make financial sense to go to college to do all the stereo typical things professors think you learn in college (thinking, learn to learn, etc.).

Several decades ago I got a four year degree in accounting, and if I had gone to a trade school, I would probably be working as a bookkeeper now. It seems to me we've had this discussion before on this blog: getting a degree is about signaling to future employers that you can survive four years in college, not about learning anything. It certainly is a waste of time for thousands of students, but from the students' point of view it is worth taking the time and spending the money. But only if the student is specifically working to burnish his qualifications at minimal cost, and not taking a professor's course on the theory that he might learn something.

I also think the idea that going to college teaches one to learn to write, learn, communicate, etc. is also a myth. I never learned any of those skills in college. It was only once I was out of the artificial environment of college that I learned to write coherently. I think this entire essay would have been a terrible mishmash if I had written it while I was in college.

Steve Horwitz writes:

Well Mark, perhaps you went to the wrong college. I see those skills developed in my own students from when they enter the door until they walk out.

That said, I totally agree that there are way too many kids in college these days.

Jack writes:

The Atlantic blogpost is very confused (too many issues mixed up), but there are several important issues that deserve careful analysis.

Focusing on adjuncts, as others have said the variance of quality is high and depends on supply and demand for their skills. We cannot change demand much, but we can change supply. E.g., the usual story that we produce too many Humanities PhDs, who become hopeful and then disgruntled adjuncts.

Joe Cushing writes:

The best profs I ever had were adjuncts. They all worked in the field they taught. They had stories to go along with the text. It was great. Walsh College in Troy MI. It's a private college too.

Jenny L Vo writes:

I would agree with many that adjuncts are wonderful professors though it is a shame that they do not get the benefits they deserve. It is a wonder why demand by students for good professors are so high yet their pay is so low. The public education system is taking so many cut backs though other areas could be cut. There is a constraint to cut costs by cutting available courses and capping the units, but the government is reaping the benefits of the students. Students must struggle more years of debt to earn the education that is no longer a guarantee into a career. It is more harmful in the long run.

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