Let’s say you teach at an M.A.-granting state school with 2,000 new first-year undergraduates entering annually. Let’s further say they take half their load with faculty on part-time appointments. Controlling for other variables, one new multi-campus study suggests that this degree of contingency in faculty appointment could play a significant part in 600 students dropping out before their sophomore year.

The latest chapter (pdf) in the cautious series by Audrey Jaeger and Kevin Eagan focuses on the critical first year in four-year institutions, following up previous efforts on community colleges and the lower division more broadly.  Their conclusion: a merely “average” degree of contingency in faculty appointments and working conditions at four-year institutions affects year-to-year student retention by as much as 30 percent:

Students with average levels of exposure to full-time, nontenure-track, “other”
contingent, and graduate assistant faculty may be as much as 30 percent less likely
to persist, compared to their peers who have only full-time faculty.

Noting that at all of the institutions they studied but one, “more than 50 percent of the credits taken by students during their first year were led by a contingent faculty member,” Jaeger and Eagan dryly conclude, “given these findings, employment status of faculty deserves further discussion.”

Studying several years of data from a state system, they carefully document a close correlation with the degree of contingency in faculty appointment and retention.

In the baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral-extensive institutions studied, they found consistent decreases in the likelihood of sophomore-year retention ranging from 2 to 7 percent for every 10-percent increase in contact hours with faculty on contingent appointment.

Disaggregating appointment categories, they found that the more contingent the appointment, the stronger the association with negative student outcomes.

Credit hours led by faculty on full-time nontenurable appointment outperformed those led by graduate student instructors and both outperformed sections led by faculty on part-time appointment.

But “greater levels of contingent faculty instruction, despite whether these faculty
are working full time or part time, typically have a negative effect on student persistence,” they emphasize.

Working Conditions Matter

At the two doctoral-intensive institutions they studied, Jaeger and Eagan found modest positive correlation between retention and exposure to graduate student and faculty on contingent appointments. This finding contradicted what they learned at the other institution in this study and in their own previous work.

This unusual finding led them to examine the working conditions of faculty serving contingently at those two institutions. Finding greater support, funding for faculty development and integration, they hypothesize that supporting part-time faculty better might have an impact.

As in their other published studies, Jaeger and Eagan interpret their results to mean that the conditions of contingency are the culprit, not the faculty. They observe that there may well be less harm in appointing faculty on a part-time basis in upper division and graduate study.

Research-Intensive Faculty Share the Blame

The shrinking minority of research faculty have developed a culture of contempt for general education. Regular readers know that AAUP conspicuously declined to sign on the latest report by the “Coalition on the Academic Workforce” in large part because this report, scripted by the staff at disciplinary associations, essentially abandoned the first two years of college instruction.

Disciplinary associations are dominated by research-intensive faculty who have been making this bargain with administrators for the past 40 years: “Keep our tenure lines in the major and grad program, and we’ll supervise students and lecturers teaching gen ed.”

Probably the number-one reason AAUP declined to sign the CAW report is the disciplinary associations’ insistence on recommending that “tenure lines should be sufficient to cover courses in the upper-division undergraduate and graduate curricula and to ensure an appropriate presence of tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the lower division.”

As my committee at AAUP analyzed it, CAW’s waffle regarding “an appropriate presence” in the lower division aimed to serve the self-interest of a tiny fraction of the faculty at the expense of students and most other faculty.

The CAW report and the minority faculty it represents flies in the face of research by Paul Umbach, Jaeger and Eagan, and many others. The recommendations are exactly the reverse of Jaeger and Eagan’s, who find great impact from contingency in the early years and less in the upper division and graduate study.

So long as privilege continues to flow to the disciplines, the CAW is cheerfully willing to underwrite the steady casualization of the majority faculty teaching the majority of students, i.e. community colleges and the first two years everywhere.

Responsible policy makers, researchers like Jaeger and Eagan, and many administrators, however, acknowledge that the lower division and general ed are the area where the US system of higher education already is the most dysfunctional by most measures of student success.

The Buck Stops With Administrators

Administrators ultimately make resource allocation decisions that shape first-year teaching.

Many administrators would willingly see more experienced tenure-stream faculty in the first-year classroom and grumpily point to the unwillingness of research-intensive faculty to appear there.

However, administrators are the ones who have steadily whittled away at a career path that this research suggests is one of the most important in the academy: the teaching-intensive tenure track.

While no faculty appointments should be teaching only—it is the teaching-only nature of most contingent appointments that accounts for much of the negative impact—appointments that are teaching intensive should be an important component of every faculty.

Much reduced from their high point in 1970, appointments to the teaching-intensive tenure track nonetheless remain widespread, especially at the M.A. and B.A.-granting institutions where the difference between their student outcomes and those of faculty on contingent appointments are most obvious.

At 9-plus teaching hours per week, with full campus citizenship and full obligations to professional development—which might include appropriately modest expectations for research activity—faculty on these appointments work hard for bartenders’ wages, but deliver real results for students.

Over the decades, administrations have lost literally millions of students by replacing appointments that enable teaching-intensive campus citizens with those that give faculty little choice except to be teaching-only freeway flyers.

As I and many others have noted, administrators have actively chosen to disinvest in faculty, spending instead on sports, infrastructure, and venture capitalism.

Even in naked business terms: were the gains they achieved with these allocations really worth the loss of  millions of “education customers”?

Considering the role tuition plays in most budgets, I doubt it.

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Dismal Science Fiction

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Conversion to Tenure

Stabilizing Persons, Creating New Lines
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