Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Reflecting on Adjuncts and Retention Rates (IHE)

If you haven't already, read Scott Jaschik's Inside Higher Ed article, Adjuncts and Retention Rates, on the Jaeger and Eagan study, Examining Retention and Contingent Faculty Use in a State System of Public Higher Education, now, before reading further. 

In many cases, state systems of higher education are not only challenged to address decreasing state budgets but are also asked to increase student retention and other measures of student success. The increased use of contingent faculty may help economically, but this trend may have unintended consequences. This research used logistic regression methods to examine six institutions within a public higher education system for the effects of contingent faculty use on first-year student retention. A thorough examination of other traditional variables used in retention studies is also provided. Results are reported by institutional type via Carnegie classification.

Most notably, high levels of exposure to part-time faculty in the first year of college are consistently found to negatively affect student retention to the second year. These findings have implications for both policy and practice in the use of contingent faculty across institutional types.

faculty, higher education, higher education policy

A propos the article in question, NFM prez Maria Maisto writes, 

We think the most obvious positive is the study's finding (unsurprising to us) that better support for adjuncts translates into better outcomes for students. But we also would have liked to see if "support" for adjuncts included such things as access to benefits and decent compensation relative to that of contingent faculty in other places (not to mention relative to the tenure-stream colleagues with whom contingent faculty are being compared to in other respects); union representation; and participation in governance, in addition to things like inclusion in orientation. Conversely, in places where there was apparently a "negative effect," were these factors considered?

Other positives are the report's acknowledgment of the limitations of this and past studies; its recognition of the need for more and better research that teases out the factors that constitute educational quality and/or contribute to
student retention; and its highlighting the fact that institutions are not required to keep or report the kinds of statistics on such crucial  issues as part-time faculty longevity or motivation or the teaching  methods they use -- and, again, we might add compensation or inclusion in governance or union representation -- that would be helpful to better research. So with any luck the publication of this report might lead to better recordkeeping and research.

The most hopeful part of the report may be in its conclusion, again completely unsurprising to us, that it is imperative that we improve our understanding of part-time faculty, which includes the needs and desires of this group.

The hint of respect for contingent faculty that finally comes through in this sentence at the end of the report is a welcome contrast to its (and previous studies') persistently dehumanizing attitude toward us, created by language like "exposure" and "use" and stated assumptions on contingent/student interactions. All of that contributes in its own way to perpetuating a culture that is unsupportive of contingent faculty. But, provided its findings are closely examined and limitations properly appreciated, this report does  contribute to the effort to improve undergraduate education through the improvement of working conditions for the majority of faculty directly responsible for it.

More links:
Ed note: comments on this article within the NFM email group  have been lively and thoughtful. I hope that other board members will share them here.  I'm thinking of Steve Street in particular and am willing to nudge hard (e.g. nag) for them. 

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