Celia R. Baker
Adjunct instructor Rebecca Bauman holds a pre-class conference with Alexander Esmail, a student in the writing class she teaches at Flagler College, St. Augustine, Fla.

Rebecca Bauman patches together a livable income by teaching persuasive writing courses at the University of Florida and at a small private college in St. Augustine, Fla. She holds degrees from esteemed universities and won an award for teaching excellence when she taught courses at Florida as a graduate student.

Bauman loves what she does. But she sometimes feels like a ghostly nomad, unnoticed by her colleagues on the tenure track as she comes and goes. While tenured professors pull down six-figure salaries for teaching the same classes, Bauman earns less than $20,000 per year, and she has neither job security nor a benefits package.

Bauman is a part-time adjunct instructor, a member of the fastest-growing group among the tenure-tracked professors, full-time lecturers and part-time instructors who teach in the U.S. higher education system. These part-time faculty comprise more than 40 percent of instructional staff at U.S. colleges and universities; full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty comprise about 22 percent.

For Bauman, the joy of teaching offsets the downsides of her situation for now, but she worries constantly about the future, she said. She has no guarantee her services will be wanted next semester.

Though she dreams of snagging a secure, full-time position at a good school, Bauman doesn’t think it will happen. Her time is eaten up with designing creative lesson plans, reading student papers, meeting with her students and driving from school to school. Carving out enough extra hours to write a book or publish academic papers seems impossible. And in Bauman’s experience, that’s how tenure-track professors get hired.

“I’ve seen a lot of tenure-track teachers not get the best feedback about their teaching, but, boy-howdy, if they just got a piece into (a magazine or journal) or a grant to do research, that ends up meaning more. Meanwhile, adjuncts are on the ground with the students.”

Who teaches?

The dilemma part-time teachers like Bauman face figures into a larger debate about whom colleges and universities hire for their teaching staffs and how those choices affect their budgets — and their students.

A new study from Northwestern University suggests that first-year college students have better future outcomes when taught by nontenured teachers than by tenured and tenure-track professors. The study sparked discussion about cutting higher education’s cost through innovative staffing that lets tenured professors concentrate on research while expert teachers instruct students.

The study’s findings are subject to important caveats, however, said co-author David Figlio, an education economist at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research.

To understand the study’s limitations, it's helpful to have a clear grasp of what tenure is and who gets it. In the United States, tenure refers to a senior professor’s right not to be fired without cause. Part of tenure’s purpose is to give academic freedom and job stability to professors whose research and writing could run against popular opinion. Tenure is often linked with an expectation that a professor will burnish her university’s reputation by publishing papers or attracting research grants.

Off the tenure track, various scenarios exist. At larger schools, it is increasingly common for doctorate-holding “lecturers” to win job security as full-time, benefited employees who specialize in teaching basic courses. Typically, lecturers possess proven teaching skills and subject-area expertise. Lecturers are usually compensated well, though not at the same level as their tenured peers.

The term “adjunct” is more slippery. It can refer to anyone who teaches outside of the tenure track but is often used as a designation for part-time instructors without ongoing contracts or benefits — like Bauman. As with their tenure-track peers, some have that flair that marks a gifted teacher, and some don’t. Research results on how their students perform is divided.

The paper, which Figlio co-wrote for the National Bureau of Economic Research, studied first-year students at Northwestern over eight years. Its intent was to determine whether nontenure-track faculty contribute more or less to lasting student learning than tenured and tenure-track faculty do.

The study found that students taught by nontenure-track teachers are more likely to take second courses in the same subject area and to get higher grades in those courses than first-year students taught by tenure-track and tenured professors. The results held across all subject areas, and the biggest gains came for students with lower academic qualifications in comparison to peers.

The caveats

Figlio is quick to point out that his study is not about using part-time adjuncts “like widgets” to solve staffing and budgeting issues or supplant tenured professors’ role in higher education.

“That’s a very important question that people ought to study, but it’s not what we are equipped to study with our data from Northwestern,” Figlio said.

Northwestern is a top-ranked private research university that can be highly selective regarding who can attend and who can teach, he said. Eighty percent of the nontenure-track teachers in Figlio’s study were full-time lecturers in long-standing contracts with benefits. The remainder were experts hired part-time to teach specialized subjects such as Turkish, or high-profile journalists who taught in Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

The study only considered students at Northwestern. Figlio said his paper is a first step, but more research is needed to see if its results hold up at a wider range of institutions. The study’s takeaway was that at Northwestern, full-time lecturers are achieving more success with first-year students than their tenured peers.

“These people are hired, retained and rewarded based on their teaching skill, so it’s not a big surprise that they do better in the classroom than those hired, retained and rewarded on the basis of research,” he said. But those results have been misconstrued in the media, he added.

“It would be irresponsible to generalize the results of this study to institutions that are serving a vastly different clientele,” he said. “Even though we find that results are strongest for relatively weaker students at Northwestern, those students are still among the most academically qualified in the country.”

Other studies

Indiana University research professor Thomas Nelson Laird said the longitudinal study at Northwestern used sophisticated methods and models to arrive at its results and was well designed. Laird's research for the National Survey of Student Engagement found that good teaching practices — and not-so-good ones — are common among all types of college-level instructors. The quality of education, he said, depends on the teacher.

When teaching practices leading to student engagement — psychological investment — are studied, results are mixed but lean negative for nontenure-track teachers, whether full or part time, Laird said. For tenure-track teachers, results are also mixed but lean positive in getting students invested in what they are learning.

Laird’s conclusions echo findings of previous research, such as a 2005 study from Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, which found that when a four-year academic institution increases its use of either full-time, nontenure-track faculty or part-time faculty, its undergraduate students’ first-year persistence rates and graduation rates decrease.

Interesting innovations

As traditional colleges and universities seek the ideal mix of adjuncts, lecturers and tenure-track professors, nontraditional colleges that do away with tenure altogether are popping up.

Western Governors University has nearly 40,000 students in its online program, which is competency-based. Most instructors hold graduate degrees, but there is no tenure system. The school was founded in 1997.

A new experiment to watch is the Minerva Project, which aims to offer an elite university education for half the cost of an Ivy League school. Tuition, room and board will be about $29,000 per year, compared with about $60,000 at elite U.S. universities. Seminar-style courses for small groups of select students will be conducted via the Internet, taught by subject-area experts from around the world. None will receive tenure.

Schools like these throw out the tenure system and eliminate costs for buildings and expensive athletic programs.

Unexpected consequences

The impending enactment of the Affordable Care Act adds another facet to the debate over instructional staffing at colleges and universities. When the law goes into effect in January 2015, it will require employers to provide health insurance to employees who work 30 or more hours. But in academia, workload is determined by number of classes taught or students supervised, not counted in hours. What 30 hours means within academic settings hasn’t been fully defined yet.

“It’s a strange side effect of the Affordable Care Act," Laird said. “Institutions that want the quickest solution will reduce hours of all part-time people to fall under the minimum and simply increase the number of people working in those roles. I don’t think that education wins in that scenario.”

Already, some institutions are limiting adjuncts’ teaching hours to avoid having to provide health care benefits, according to Inside Higher Ed.

As tenured faculty at traditional colleges and universities see their responsibilities increase, employing contingent faculty not on the tenure track is seen as a necessary supplement, Laird said. But the devil is in the details when it comes to deciding who should teach Biology 101 and freshman English. The only certainty in the discussion about instructional staffing at colleges and universities of the future is that it won’t look like yesterday’s model.

“We will be working out for the next couple of decades what faculty roles are and how they get divided,” Laird predicted. “We haven’t found the silver bullet yet.”

Email: [email protected] Twitter: @celiarbaker