The Good News and the Bad News About Public Colleges

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Guest post by Laura McKenna, former political science professor, blogger, and freelance writer

If anyone could be described as the poster child for public colleges, it would have to be me.

I'm a graduate of SUNY-Binghamton and CUNY-Graduate Center. My brother has a BA from the University of Virginia. My sister attended SUNY-Binghamton. My husband has degrees from Miami University, Cleveland State University, and CUNY-Graduate Center. His father also attended Miami University.  My husband and I collectively taught at four different public colleges. 

My parents were the first in their families to attend college and both attended public universities. My dad, the third generation to work in Chicago's steel mills, started at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, which transformed him from a C student to an A student. Two years later, he earned a full scholarship to the University of Chicago. He later became a professor and taught at City College of New York for 35 years. 

Over her Italian father's protests, my mother went to Hunter College back when it was a woman's college. She worked two jobs to pay her tuition. 

The affordable tuition and excellent education at these state schools were critical for the success of my family, as well as millions of working class and middle class Americans. 

So, what's the state of state colleges today? Are public colleges still taking care of their core constituency? 

Last week's New York Times article on student loan debt showed that students from state colleges had lower debt burdens than private college students. Tuition was half the price of private schools. (Please play with the Times' interactive graph.) That's good news. 

The Times also reports that all public colleges have been getting more selective, as students are priced out of private schools.

Across the country, the most selective public colleges have been growing more so for decades, with many of them seeing a notable shift in the past few years. The share of entering freshmen who were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes rose to 73 percent last fall from 69 percent in 2007 at the University of Texas at Austin, to 57 percent from 49 percent at Binghamton University and to 80 percent from 76 percent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to name a few.

So, smart students are deciding to forgo expensive private school tuition and limiting their student loan burden. That's good news, too. 

The bad news is that 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 unionized1 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

Doing some back of the envelope computations using data from the Chronicle of Higher Education, I found some depressing news about my alma mater and other public colleges. At SUNY Binghamton, of the 812 faculty, 383 are adjuncts. That's 47 percent of their total faculty.  At Penn State, of their 3,187 full time faculty, 1,428 are not tenured or on tenure track positions. In other words, 49 percent of their faculty do not have job security, equal pay, or benefits. If you attend University of Tennessee at Knoxville, you are highly likely to be taught by a graduate assistant. Of, their 4,235 teachers, only 1,295 are tenured or tenure-track professor. 2,062 of their teachers are graduate assistants. 

In a report released last year, 56 percent of all classes at community colleges in Pennsylvania were taught by adjunct or non-tenure track professors. They receive $2,500 per class. If the adjuncts taught a staggering five classes per semester, their salary would be $25,000 per year. They often receive no benefits. 

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. 

State colleges have been forced to rely on non-tenure track faculty for several reasons. One factor has been the economic downturn, which has caused states to cutback on their support of higher education. State appropriations for colleges fell by 7.6 percent in 2011-12, the largest annual decline in at least five decades. With a decrease in revenue, an obvious way to save money is to hire cheap labor. At $2,500 per class, adjuncts are a bargain. 

Colleges have also been forced to rely on adjuncts as they push their tenured faculty to concentrate on research and graduate education

With tuition at private colleges in the $40,000 range, we're highly likely to be a third generation public school family. In a few years, I will be taking my son to tour Penn State and SUNY-Binghamton. I hope that in that time, I will see a reverse of some of these "bad news" trends. I hope that tenured faculty will return to the undergraduate classrooms and that all faculty members will be rewarded for excellence in the classroom.  

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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