Even if the cost of a college education weren’t increasing, the amount of money in the budget for non-classroom-related activities would have a negative effect. In 2013, colleges and universities devoted less than a third of their revenue to instruction, and, in 2011, at the end of the recession, despite growth in revenue, public and private research universities cropped their education-related spending. One adjunct teacher, JJ, posting a comment online, calculated his or her pay as an adjunct as $65 per student per semester, adding up to the princely sum of $2,000, noting that “each student paid $45,000 in tuition and took about 4 classes a semester. … I think their parents would be rather upset to learn that only $65 of the $45,000 went to pay one professor for an entire semester.”
Of course, what parents really care about is whether their students are benefiting from the money they’re spending. So the real question is whether the shift to adjunct teaching has helped or hurt education outcomes. That turns out to be a hard question to answer definitively, because comprehensive data on student outcomes is hard to come by and the variety among adjuncts (part-time, full-time, graduate students, and so on) and schools (selective schools, open-admissions schools) makes comparisons difficult without good data. According to some research, adjuncts get high marks. One study found that freshmen at Northwestern University learned more in introductory classes taught by non-tenured faculty. Another study, of a public four-year school in Ohio, showed that students who took science and engineering classes from adjuncts were more likely to take more classes in those fields, especially if the adjuncts were older (the authors theorized that the real-world industry experience of these older instructors may have captured the students’ imaginations).
Other research, however, points strongly in the opposite direction. A study of community-college students found that those who had more exposure to part-time teachers were less likely to transfer to four-year universities. Another detailed study of six public universities within one state found that, at four of those schools, freshmen who had more time with part-time faculty were substantially less likely to return sophomore year. Interestingly, however, at the other two universities in that state, freshmen with higher exposure to part-time teachers were slightly more likely to persist to sophomore year. The difference, the researchers discovered, is that these two schools gave their part-time instructors more support, including them, for instance, in new-faculty orientation programs.
This last finding gets to the larger point. As a class, adjuncts probably aren’t any worse at teaching than tenured professors (who, for the most part, aren’t hired for their teaching ability). What seems to make a difference is how adjuncts are treated. At most schools, adjuncts simply aren’t getting the tools, training, support, or even status that they need to do their job. Mary Grabar, who worked as an adjunct for many years, sums it up:
Consider the harried part-timer pulling her cart from the car to the “office.” This was necessary, for in most places one could expect at most part of a file drawer for storage, or if she had some seniority among adjuncts, a small locker for her coat and papers next to a cubicle in the hallway near the regular faculty offices. At the state university we had one large room called “The Bullpen.” It contained cast-off desks and chairs. If your office hour happened to not be at a popular time, you would be lucky and get a place to sit, along with a chair for your student. I seemed to get the desk with the worst chair, one which required a delicate balancing act, as it wobbled precipitously. There was certainly no leaning back into a reverie about the poetry I was about to teach! That was too dangerous.
And Grabar says she certainly didn’t have much time to spare for students with similar reveries, or students who simply had questions.