How Does Reliance on Part-Time Faculty Affect Your Education?

Colleges are increasingly shifting the bulk of their faculty from part time to full time, raising many questions: Are there benefits to having a large part-time faculty population? What about drawbacks? Let’s look at this relatively new phenomenon and see what it means to the average student. 

Part-Time Faculty 

There will be exceptions to this general rule, but I’ll be blunt: having a majority of the faculty as part-timers benefits no one but the bottom-line of the school they work for. It doesn’t benefit the part-time faculty, and it certainly doesn’t benefit the students. 

Before we dive too deep into the details, let’s cover a few different types of faculty.

 Full-time, tenure-track faculty are guaranteed a certain amount of hours and pay.

Full-time, tenure-track faculty are guaranteed a certain amount of hours and pay.

First up is full-time faculty with tenure. We’ll lump these folk in with full-time tenure-track faculty as well.

A Professor who has been appointed tenure has a great deal of job security as the appointment is valid until they retire. Tenured Professors have a certain amount of academic freedom and cannot be dismissed for having controversial views. They help shape academic programs at the college and are responsible for setting the direction the curriculum will take. 

Part-time faculty are also known as adjuncts. They work semester to semester and can flip between courses to fulfill the school’s needs. 

The rise of part-time faculty is a recent phenomenon. In the storied history of higher learning dating back over a thousand years, the quantity of part-time faculty took over full-time faculty in just the last thirty years.  

According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in 1975, 57% of the faculty were full-time tenured or tenure-track with 43% working as a non-tenure-track or part-time faculty. As of 2011, 30% of faculty were full-time tenured or tenure-track while 70% were part-time or non-tenure-track. 

This wild swing in the number of part-time faculty has led to what many believe is a lower quality of education for many institutions. 

Why the Fuss?

At this point we know there’s been a huge shift in the number of full-time and part-time faculty. What impact does it have on students?

Consider the lifestyle that is encouraged and required by the majority of part-time faculty on most college campuses.

 Part-time professors typically do not have the same amount of time to meet with students and offer individual attention.

Part-time professors typically do not have the same amount of time to meet with students and offer individual attention.

First off, adjuncts are paid up to 20-30% less than full-time professors. This is the primary reason part-timers have become so popular, but it also means the faculty has little loyalty to the institution they work for and cannot use their time efficiently to help students as they are required to juggle multiple jobs.

Part-time faculty are typically hired late in the season – sometimes just days or weeks before classes begin. This uncertainty means they have little time to prepare effectively for the classes they will teach.

An uncertain lifestyle coupled with low pay means part-time faculty spend fewer hours on campus, are not as available to students, and not invested in seeing their students grow throughout their entire education.

Part-time faculty are not given the same academic freedom as their tenured peers. They have little say in the curriculum and cannot help nurture the programs they are teaching in. 

The Net Effect on Students

A study performed by Dan Jacoby from the University of Washington found that institutions with higher percentages of part-time faculty resulted in lower graduation rates – especially for community colleges where the use of part-time faculty is more widespread. 

How can we fix the problem? Getting rid of part-time faculty is not the solution. In general, part-time faculty are well trained and have proper experience – it’s the other conditions that make them less effective. By paying them for course time only, there is no incentive to stay extra hours. Switching to an hourly rate whether teaching or holding office hours would be more appropriate. 

Paying part-time faculty significantly less than their tenured counterparts forces them to find alternate sources of income. Again, this results in less student time for the part-time faculty. Just to be clear, when we talk about part-time wages, we are talking about the minimum wage or slightly higher. 

Increasing job stability would go a long way in decreasing the transient nature of part-timers. Offer them longer termed contracts and the turnover rate should drop significantly.

There has been and always will be a certain percentage of teachers who may prefer to work part-time. These type of professors should be welcomed and encouraged as they offer different perspectives to the academics at the institution.

However, the current practice of relying heavily on part-time teachers means many adjuncts are forced to juggle part-time jobs when they really desire a full-time position. Continuing the practice of low-pay and uncertainty causes frequent burn-out in the industry.

The number one reason colleges employ so many part-timers is to save money. However, there are many other redundant positions that could be cut, especially in administration or construction. This would keep prices reasonable for students without sacrificing educational quality. 

To check to see what percentage of faculty is full-time at the school you are considering, go to the college profile page at College Factual. On the overview page you'll see the percentage of full-time faculty. Clicking on it will show you the breakdown of instructional staff into tenured, non-tenured and tenure-track. 

For example, you can see here that 97% of the faculty at the University of Connecticut works full time.

If the amount of full-time professors at a school is important to you, make sure you check the stats before adding a college to your list.

Need help building your list? Sign up for your free College Factual account.