Adjunct professors are instructors “hired on a contractual, part-time basis as opposed to the traditional university model of full-time employment,” as explained by Concordia University in Portland. And this is important because, “adjunct faculty now make up the majority of instructors in higher education institutions nationwide.” According to a Forbes article, fully 70% of college faculty members were contingent employees in 2011.
On the positive side, adjunct professors can be experts in their fields who teach limited courses at a local university to share their unique professional expertise. Think Tyra Banks teaching a class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business on personal branding. Or former United States attorney, Preet Bharara, teaching the Elements of Criminal Justice at NYU School of Law. But on the negative side, there is typically a significant wage gap between contingent and tenured faculty, and adjuncts often receive little to no benefits from the institutions they teach for. But why should this matter to high school students?
Aside from the fundamental question of whether this is an ethical system, adjunct faculty are not given the necessary resources to provide a quality education to their students. Contingent faculty are often assigned classes at the last minute, meaning they don’t have the time to fully prepare for the class and they might be teaching a subject outside their area of expertise. Because of the low wages, they often teach classes at multiple institutions, stretching these instructors very thin and making them less available to their students. This can negatively impact the student’s experience in the class itself and also make things like attaining letters of recommendation more difficult down the line.
If this situation concerns you, I’d encourage you to start asking questions on your next college tour. The American Federation of Teachers suggests asking the following questions:
- How likely is it that a first- or second year student at your institution will be taught by full-time, permanent faculty members?
- What percentage of undergraduate classes and discussion sections are taught by part-time faculty and graduate assistants?
- How much do part-time faculty make per course at your institution?
- Are part-time faculty required to hold office hours? Do they get paid to do so, and are they provided suitable office space to meet with students?
If the student tour guide doesn’t know the answer, ask them to talk to their boss and follow up with you. This is a simple way to let colleges know what matters to students and families, and to advocate for adjunct instructors.