Supporting Adjunct Faculty to Advance Student Success in Community Colleges
Susan Bickerstaff is a Senior Research Associate at the Community College Research Center. She conducts research on faculty development, developmental education and instructional reform in community colleges.
Over the past decade, community colleges have put substantial effort into student success initiatives aimed at increasing student learning, persistence and completion. Yet, despite the direct impact that part-time (or adjunct) faculty have on students, the working conditions of adjuncts have received little attention. A long history of research has shown that part-time faculty, who make up two thirds of the instructional workforce in community colleges, work under challenging conditions with limited institutional support. And research suggests that students taught by part-time faculty do worse in terms of persistence, completion and transfer. Thus, a comprehensive vision for the improvement of community colleges must include addressing the needs of adjunct faculty.
In 2016, Achieving the Dream, a non-profit student success organization, provided six colleges with funds and support to experiment with strategies to engage adjunct faculty in the service of improving outcomes for students. The Community College Research Center (CCRC) partnered with ATD to assess the effort. A new CCRC brief summarizes baseline research on faculty experiences at the six colleges and describes strategies the colleges are employing to address part-time faculty members’ needs.
The brief identifies common experiences of part-time faculty—having a complicated and unpredictable schedule and work life, feeling disconnected from the department and the college as a whole, and feeling underpaid and undervalued, while at the same time enjoying relative autonomy and possessing a deep passion for instructional work with students. Based on these findings and the strategies employed by the six participating colleges, we describe four ways colleges can improve the experiences of part-time faculty as part of a broader student success initiative.
Provide Clear and Accessible Information About Resources and Policies
A primary way to ease the complications of part-time faculty life is to provide clear and readily accessible information about departmental and college resources and policies. Our analysis suggests that part-time faculty members who know more about the college spend less time tracking down information, can guide students to needed resources and use more of their limited time to focus on instruction and direct student support. While this is particularly true for new faculty, even part-time faculty with a long tenure at the institution report a need to understand evolving college policies, new initiatives, events and activities.
Create Opportunities for Collaboration and Connection
Though not all part-time faculty want additional connection, some adjuncts feel isolated without the institutional involvement that comes with being a full-time faculty member. In our survey sample, 68 percent report that they are moderately or extremely satisfied with their professional relationships. Some experienced and confident instructors in our sample were attracted to part-time teaching because it demands limited engagement in the broader life of the institution. However, for some part-time faculty interviewees, isolation has a negative impact on both their experience at the institution and potentially on their effectiveness in the classroom. When faculty who are teaching the same courses or are within the same discipline have the opportunity to share instructional resources and techniques, they create efficiencies (instead of “reinventing the wheel”) and are able to troubleshoot challenges. Even a single semester-long opportunity to share with colleagues has the potential to generate long-term informal relationships faculty can draw on when future questions arise.
Invite Part-Time Faculty Perspectives and Feedback
Although part-time faculty teach a substantial proportion of course sections, they rarely contribute to departmental instructional design efforts, including program mapping, curricular selection and assessment. Some part-time faculty we interviewed are eager to have a voice in shaping the educational experiences of students at their colleges. Given their experience (about half of part-time faculty surveyed for this project have a degree in education or a teaching credential) and enthusiasm, departments might benefit from finding ways to solicit the perspectives and expertise of adjuncts interested in contributing to departmental and institutional life.
Assess Practices Related to Compensation and Advancement
In addition to providing opportunities to forge connections and offer feedback, colleges must assess the overall picture of faculty work, including job responsibilities, compensation and opportunities for advancement. This includes evaluating the extent to which part-time faculty are expected to or are relied upon to do uncompensated work. Inviting engagement and collaboration without compensation can further exacerbate pay inequity between part-time and full-time faculty. In addition, part-time faculty report a need for more transparency about full-time hiring decisions as well as guidance and support to develop a strong application when full-time positions become available. These practices can create a stronger pipeline of highly qualified candidates for full-time positions, and they benefit the department and the college as a whole.
Given the significant proportions of students they teach, part-time faculty are essential to the success of community colleges. Many have deep knowledge of their students, their subject matter and instructional practices. Yet they do their work with some distinct disadvantages: fewer professional relationships to leverage when challenges arise, unequal access to institutional resources and limited time on campus to build institutional knowledge. As community colleges engage in myriad improvement efforts to increase student success, they must consider the extent to which part-time faculty have the support they need to contribute.