July 6, 2015

The One Question Every Prospective College Student Should Be Asking

Apologies for the clickbaity headline. That sort of thing isn't usually my style. I'll cut right to the chase. The question is "What percentage of classes are taught by full-time faculty?". If you're already on board with why this is important and would like to get right to the juicy, juicy data, have at it. I've culled the information provided by US News and World report so that it can be re-sorted by any of the available metrics they have (including percentage of full time faculty). In the meantime, for some insight as to why this is important, read on.

Unbeknownst to the general public, academia is undergoing an identity crisis. As tuition costs have skyrocketed, universities are being run more and more like corporations. Two trends in particular will be very familiar to those in the corporate world - exorbitant management salaries, and labor cost-cutting via replacing full-time, benefit-receiving employees with part-time, contract employees. In academia this translates to hiring fewer and fewer tenured professors and increasingly relying on adjuncts to teach classes.

What is an adjunct?

Adjunct professors are usually hired on a class-by-class basis to teach a specific course. They are paid per course, and are only paid for the time spent in the classroom, typically $2,500 - $4,000 per course. Traditionally, this was a way to allow people who held full-time jobs to share their real world experience in a university setting and earn a little extra income. Lately, these positions are used by recent and soon-to-be PhD graduates to cobble together a living while they chase a shrinking pool of tenure-track teaching positions.

What does this mean for students?

Students should be the most concerned about the quality of instruction they're receiving. While most adjuncts are extremely dedicated individuals (indeed, they have to be to persevere in their fields without secure employment), they do not possess the resources that come with a full professorship. As adjunct professors themselves warn, they are not provided with office space, making it difficult or impossible to meet with students outside of class. Not being full-time, permanent employees, adjunct professors have a limited knowledge of the university's curriculum and policies, rendering them unable to give advice to students about which courses to take to best meet their educational goals. For students who plan on continuing on to a graduate degree, they may have difficulty getting letters of recommendation when most of their classes have been taught by adjuncts. Since adjuncts are only hired on a per-semester basis, there is no guarantee that the professor they had last semester will be back next semester. If they are able to get a letter of recommendation, students will find that a letter from an adjunct professor carries less influence with admissions committees than a letter from a tenured or tenure-track professor.

What can students do?

Another facet of the corporatization of the university is the transition of students into customers. Like any other corporation, the ability to win customers is the final arbiter of success for modern universities. To that end, students must vote with their wallets. Choosing a school based on their willingness to employ full-time faculty will not only help to improve the plight of adjuncts everywhere, but also makes sense for the student hoping obtain the best possible education for their tuition dollar.

How do I know which schools favor employing full time faculty?

Funny you should ask! As it happens, this data is included as part of the US News and World report college rankings. However it does not currently figure very heavily into the way they calculate their rankings. That's why I've taken the liberty of compiling the data from US News into a list that is easily sortable by any of the component information that makes up the rankings. Feel free to give it a try. Universities often claim that these rankings are not meaningful (at least, the ones who don't get ranked as highly as they would like do), but the fact is, they matter. They are often the first place a student will look to begin evaluating colleges. As the self-appointed arbiters of education quality, US News has an opportunity and a responsibility to use their influence to push universities towards a higher standard. Adjuncts have pushed for years to improve their situation, but it is unlikely universities are going to listen to them. Only when the exploitation of adjuncts starts to have a negative effect on their enrollment numbers and tuition revenue are universities going to start making changes.

In addition to exposing the data surrounding percentage of full-time faculty at each university, I've also created a new metric called "Professors per Dollar" which is the ratio of full-time faculty at a school to the tuition cost. This is an attempt to determine which schools are providing the best value in terms of quality education. College tuition is one of the most expensive purchases you will make in your life. As a student, you should be confident that your tuition money is paying for faculty resources to further your education and not inflating administrator salaries.

Professors per dollar is not a perfect metric. It's skewed by schools with very low tuition costs. The leading private university in this measure is Brigham Young University, due simply to the fact that the tuition is heavily subsidised by the Mormon church. It may also be skewed by smaller schools, with a lower number of students and thus a lower number of professors overall (adjunct or not). Since these schools do not typically come with a proportionally smaller price tag, they do worse on this metric, because you're paying about the same amount of money for access to fewer resources than you would at a larger school. Arguably this could be an accurate way to judge the value of a particular school, but some students may find smaller schools to be a better fit regardless.

I don't think any one metric is going to present perfect information for every student to choose a school that suits them best, but all sorts of information should be made available so that students can make the most informed decision possible. Overall, I think a higher percentage of full-time faculty indicates that a school places higher priority on providing a quality education rather than inflating administrative salaries or building increasingly fancy buildings.