As we are aware, most colleges and universities are highly reliant (if not solely dependent) on the use of itinerant, part-time adjunct faculty to teach a large percentage of the classes offered. Adjunct faculty members are currently teaching approximately 70 percent of courses being taught, and this has proven to be a financially viable way for universities to exist. For example, an adjunct is typically paid between $2,500 and $4,500 for each course taught. In addition, the fringe benefits for adjuncts are typically 10 percent of salary and wages. Thus, using the above payment for an adjunct, the total to be paid for this one course ranges from $2,750 ($2,500 plus $250 fringe benefits) to $4,950 ($4,500 plus $450 fringe benefits), which is significantly lower than the pay for a full-time faculty member teaching the same course. Compare and contrast these figures with the salary and fringe benefits of an assistant professor at my last institution in the Northeast: salary and wages of an assistant professor were $60,000, and fringe benefits equaled 50 percent of salary and wages (i.e., $30,000), for a total of $90,000. Faculty were contracted to teach the equivalent of four courses each semester. Therefore, one class taught “cost” $11,250, i.e., $11,250 times 8 = $90,000. As one can see from the above, there is a significant cost savings for the university by using adjuncts to teach. The savings become much more significant to the overall budget of the university the more part-time faculty are used. Of course, we realize that a university professor is called upon to do much more than merely teach classes. Part-time faculty members typically do not have office hours or, for that matter, an office. Normally, they do not advise students and do not serve on department or university-wide committees. They are employed to teach a specific course(s) on a particular day at a specific time. When the class ends, they run to their next job.
Recently, I had occasion to convene a focus group of eleven adjunct faculty members. Most indicated they were highly dependent on the payment they received for teaching their assigned courses. All of the part-time teachers taught elective rather than required core courses; the difference is that all students in the major must take a core-required course, whereas students choose to take elective courses. Therefore, a core course is almost 100 percent certain not to be canceled for lack of enrollment, but an elective course is an iffy proposition because whether it will be offered can depend on the number of students who choose to register for the course. There are many variables that enter into the equation of whether a student registers for an elective course including reputation of the instructor, day and time the course is offered, and comments from other students who previously took the course.
The adjunct faculty who participated in the focus group all indicated they were highly insecure regarding when, or if, they would be asked to teach. For example, they might be asked to teach two courses during the fall semester and none in the spring. The faculty expressed that they were dependent on the money they received for teaching for their everyday living expenses. The discussion moved to the subject of grading students. All of the part-time faculty members indicated they inflated students’ grades in order to help ensure they would receive positive student evaluations, that these students would register for another class they taught, and that students would tell their friends to take one of their courses. As a former department chair for twenty-eight years and a tenured full professor, I was taken aback by this candor. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so naïve.
People both within the academy as well as the general public are astonished by the consistently high grades that students receive. Are students simply smarter than we were when we were undergraduate students? The most frequent grade given to undergraduates in institutions of higher education is an A (43 percent).
Questions: Further Thoughts
Although you cannot draw objective conclusions from the tiny sample of people who participated in the focus group (eleven), perhaps they represent a meaningful sample of the (over)use of part-time faculty. I am not suggesting that adjunct faculty are the main reason that grades are seriously inflated. In fact, adjunct faculty perform meaningful and needed functions in the classroom. If anything, adjuncts are looked down upon and are not respected as highly as full-time faculty. It would be interesting to compare and contrast the grading policies of tenured vs. non-tenured faculty and assistant vs. associate vs. full professors. Perhaps it is past time to take a thorough look at our entire grading system.
Robert E. Cipriano is professor emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University, an advisory board member of Academic Leader and senior partner in ATLAS consulting. Cipriano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.