The public colleges and universities that educate more than 70 percent of this country’s students were burdened by rising costs and dwindling state revenues long before the recession. They reacted by raising tuition, slashing course offerings and, sometimes, by cutting enrollment.
They also cut labor costs by replacing full-time professors who retired with part-time instructors, who typically have no health or pension benefits and are often abysmally paid, earning in the vicinity of $3,000 per course.
The part-timers are often considered “invisible faculty,” because they rarely participate in academic life and typically bolt from campus the moment class ends. That researchers still know little about them — or how well they do their jobs — is especially startling given that a little more than half of all college faculty members are now part-timers, and they far outnumber full-time faculty members on most community college campuses.
The portrait of these instructors that emerges from a new study by the Center for Community College Student Engagement, a research center at the University of Texas at Austin, is alarming. The report, based on survey responses from more than 71,000 teachers, found that part-timers face many challenges. Because they are treated almost like transient workers, they are given little reason to make an investment in the institution.
They often learn which courses they are teaching just weeks or even days before the start of the semester, so there is almost no time to prepare. They often lack office space or administrative or technical support and are rarely given any guidance on how to do their jobs effectively. According to the report, they are implicitly told: “Just show up every Thursday at 5 o’clock and deliver a lecture to your class. Give a midterm and a final exam, and then turn in a grade, and the college will pay you a notably small amount of money.”
The colleges expect little of these teachers. Not surprisingly, they often act accordingly. They spend significantly less time than full-time teachers preparing for class, advising students or giving written or oral feedback. And they are far less likely to participate in instructional activities — like tutoring, academic goal setting or developing community-based projects — that can benefit students.
This situation is terrible, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds whom community colleges typically attract. On those campuses, nearly two-thirds of the students arrive needing remedial instruction in math, English or both, and often lack the basic competencies they need to move beyond remediation to a degree.
The community colleges have to do a better job of screening the part-time instructors they hire, and developing their skills, which means providing mentors and career paths that give them the opportunity to engage with campus life.
All of this will require more money for higher salaries and professional development. College degrees worth having don’t come cheap. Public officials who determine community college budgets should know full well that colleges, like other institutions, only get what they pay for.