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.