College Graduation Rates Down? Blame the Adjuncts!

Photo 26by P.D. Lesko

Salaries for full-time college faculty are at an all-time high, and the 4-year graduation rate for U.S. college students as of 2013 stood at 39 percent, the lowest 4-year graduation rate ever recorded. Who’s to blame for abysmal graduation rates according to the AAUP’s recently released Report on the Economic Status of the Profession? Adjunct faculty, of course.

According to the recently released AAUP Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, full-time faculty pay rose by 3.4 percent this year and 2.7 percent adjusted for inflation. That’s a modest drop from 2.9 percent last year, adjusted for inflation. In 2015, the AAUP’s survey showed that full-time faculty salaries rose by more than 2 percent for the first time since the recession.

“Higher education appears to be a crossroads,” says the report. “Administrators and faculty members must decide whether they will travel down the familiar road, investing resources to maintain the status quo, or take a road less traveled, reinvigorating academic units and institutions with longer-term strategies that produce measurable improvements in instructional quality.”

But while all ranks of continuing, full-time faculty enjoyed a 2.7 percent average salary increase in 2015-16, adjusted for inflation, the AAUP continued to argue–as the union has in each of its salary surveys over the past several years–that the salary increases are insignificant. The AAUP’s latest Report does contain data for non-tenured faculty and the facts are these:

After almost three decades during which adjunct faculty have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in union dues and agency fees, the highest paid full-time faculty members earn $260,000 per year and the highest paid non-tenured/adjunct faculty earn $26,000 per year. As the AAUP report has done in past years, researchers there used the release of the Report to take a swipe at non-tenured faculty, including the approximately 5,000 whom the AAUP represents and from whom the AAUP collects dues: “The increasing reliance on faculty members in part-time positions has destabilized the faculty by creating an exploitative, two-tiered system; it has also eroded student retention and graduation rates at many institutions.”

Rather than work aggressively on issues of pay equity, as Canadian faculty union leaders have done, American higher education unions have chosen to scapegoat their own adjunct faculty members.

The assertion made in the latest AAUP Report has been used since 2002 to justify a variety of programs and strategies aimed at convincing state legislatures and colleges to increase funding for full-time faculty hiring, salaries and benefits. Unions have trumpeted studies that conclude increasing reliance on part-time faculty members has eroded student retention and graduation rates at institutions around the country. The truth is that the majority of studies that have examined these questions since 2006 have concluded the employment of part-time faculty does not erode student retention or graduation rates.

A look at the use of academic studies (and their authors) by national faculty unions to justify limiting the numbers, pay and work opportunities of their own part-time faculty union members is chilling.

In 2006, University of Washington faculty member Dr. Dan Jacoby used cross-sectional analysis to estimate the graduation rates for all public community colleges based on data from a single year. The result of his Washington Federation of Teachers-backed project was the 2006 study titled, “Effects of part-time faculty employment on community college graduation rates,” published in The Journal of Higher Education, 77(6), 1081-1103.

Jacoby used IPEDS data from 1,209 community colleges to examine how adjunct faculty employment in community colleges impacted student graduation rates in the 2001 academic year. His conclusions were damning: community college graduation rates decreased as the proportion of part-time faculty employed at institutions increased.

Just months after the Journal of Higher Education published Jacoby’s study, Dan Jacoby’s name appears on a February 13, 2007 list of speakers in support of State Senate Bill 5514, a higher education Bill sponsored by a group of Washington State Senators that included long-time Sen. Karen Keiser. The Bill, crafted in support of the AFT’s FACE (Faculty and College Excellence) program called for Washington State legislators to mandate the following:

Each institution formulates a plan on how to meet the goal of having at least 75 percent of the FTE faculty positions held by full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty in each department with at least 8 FTE faculty positions. The plan must address how the institution intends to meet this goal by creating new full-time tenure track positions, rather than by eliminating positions for current employees. If departments do not meet the 75 percent goal, the share of full-time tenured and tenure-track must be increased to meet the goal by 2013. The governing boards must request funds for the projected costs.

In 2006, the Washington Education Association was among Sen. Keiser’s top campaign contributors. In fact, between the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, the Washington Federation of Teachers and the Washington Education Association appeared as top campaign donors in the campaign finance records of all of the Washington State Senators who co-sponsored SB 5514.

In the January/February 2007 issue of The Adjunct Advocate magazine, adjunct faculty activist Keith Hoeller addressed the so-called 75 percent staffing goal: “The AFT wants state legislatures to set a goal of having 75 percent of all courses taught by full-time faculty by 2013, but only in departments where there are at least the equivalent of 8 full-time professors. As noted by Doug Collins, ESL professor at South Seattle Community College, this goal could be met in part by having more full-timers teach overloads, thereby taking courses away from current adjuncts. This goal-setting strategy has failed in the past. The California legislature passed AB 1725 in 1988, which also mandated that 75 percent of community college courses should be taught by full-timers. Twenty years later, this bill has had little effect on part-time faculty, whose numbers have continued to increase.”

Two years after Keith Holler’s piece was published, the results of a 2009 study by A.J. Jaeger and M. K. Eagan indicated that the proportion of adjunct faculty at an institution did not have an impact on associate degree completion. The study’s authors pointed out that their results were inconsistent with the results of the 2006 Jacoby study. The authors criticized Jacoby’s analytical methodology: “By analyzing both student-and institution-level variables, this study appropriately separated multilevel variance and suggested that the reduced likelihood in graduation rates likely has more to do with individual student exposure to part- time faculty members than it does with the overall proportion of part-timers employed by a community college.”

A 2015 doctoral dissertation titled “The Relationship Between Adjunct Faculty Staffing and College Student Retention and Graduation” by Seton Hall Ph.D. candidate Stephen R. Deutsch concludes that the percentage of disadvantaged minority students enrolled and the preparedness of students entering a college or university (SAT Math scores, for example) have the greatest impact on an institution’s student retention and graduation rates. Deutsch writes:

In summary, the variable, part-time faculty, was not found to be statistically significant for the overall sample, nor was this variable significant in the subsample models that were limited to a single institutional control category. Also, the impact of part-time faculty was not found to be different between public and private institutions….The variable with the greatest absolute coefficient value in the overall sample, percent of disadvantaged minority students, exhibited a different impact for public and private institutions. At public institutions, the retention rate was found to decline by 6% for each point increase that an incoming cohort of freshmen was composed of students from disadvantaged minorities (beta = -0.0596, p < 0.01). But at private institutions, the impact was found to be greater, with a 13% decline in the retention rate (beta = -0.1340, p < 0.001).

Deutsch, unlike the other researchers who examined whether part-time faculty had a negative impact on student retention and graduation rates, “focused on characteristics of an institution, particularly the proportion of part-time faculty at institutions.” Deutsch observes that all the other studies on the topic (Calcagno et al., 2008; Eagan & Jaeger, 2008; Jacoby, 2006; Jaeger & Eagan, 2009; Jaeger & Eagan, 2011; Jaeger & Hinz, 2009; Johnson, 2011) have focused, instead, on “student-faculty interaction framework” as “the most common framework for studies linking the impact of adjunct instruction on student outcomes.”

In 2013, Pamela Hutto completed a doctoral dissertation titled “CORRELATIONAL ANALYSIS OF COURSE RETENTION AND FACULTY STATUS IN A COMMUNITY COLLEGE SETTING.” In other words, would increasing the number of full-time faculty increase student retention? Since 2006, AAUP, AFT and NEA union members and leaders have testified before state legislators across the nation that such a change would, indeed, improve student outcomes. Hutto’s study not only contradicted the results of Jacoby’s 2006 study, but Hutto’s analyses of student retention data gathered at Florida Community College led to this revelation:

Finding a correlation between course retention and faculty status was expected based on previous research associating faculty employment status with job performance (Schultz, 2002), student performance (Kezim et al., 2005), faculty/student interaction (Jaeger, 2008), and faculty morale (Hagedorn, 2010). However, the difference in course retention between the faculty groups was surprising. Based on a review of the literature, higher levels of retention in courses taught by permanent faculty members were expected. Previous researchers had reported that permanent faculty have higher morale (Sutherland, 2001), more institutional support (Wickrun & Stanley, 2000), and they are more available to students and entrenched in the campus community than their adjunct faculty colleagues (Hagedorn, 2010; Schuetz, 2002). However, findings in this study revealed the opposite. Results indicated that adjunct faculty members had higher course retention than permanent faculty members.

Deutsch and Hutto writing in 2013 and 2015, respectively, confirm research done by the American College Testing group years earlier. I wrote this about that research in a piece published in 2011:

Research by the American College Testing group into the percentage of students who move from freshman year into sophomore year is really where Bousquet loses any remaining credibility. According to the ACT study, the percentage of freshmen who move onto sophomore year has fallen from 74.5 percent to 74 percent. According to a recent study by the American Federation of Teachers, part-time faculty typically staff first and second-year courses, about half of the courses offered nationally, in fact.

The ACT study attributes the fall in student retention between those surveyed freshmen and sophomore students to open enrollment policies at two-year colleges, and declining student preparedness. In short, the ACT researchers conclude that when colleges chose to increase overall enrollment levels by relaxing standards for incoming students, it should have been understood that there would be an increase in first-year student attrition. That the attrition rate has risen only .5 percent in 14 years is, I think, a testament to the excellent work of the nation’s non-tenured faculty, to their reliability, devotion to their students, and their skill in the classroom even under the duress of poor institutional support.

The persistence of the AAUP, AFT and NEA and their allies in perpetuating the myth that student retention and graduation rates have deteriorated because the number of adjunct faculty employed within higher education has increased, is nothing short of political maneuvering. The AAUP’s annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession is widely written about in the mainstream media and the mainstream media often repeat verbatim misinformation about the alleged destabilization of higher education by the two-tier system under which adjunct faculty are employed.

College graduation rates are down and college competition is creeping, and over the past dozen years full-time faculty pay has increased over 25 percent. Instead of pushing for equity and equality for all college faculty, the AAUP’s solution focuses on increasing the number of full-time college faculty.

Short URL:

2 Comments for “College Graduation Rates Down? Blame the Adjuncts!”

  1. I’m employed at a community college in WA. state. At a recent faculty meeting I which massive budget cuts ( 8 million between our local schools) were discussed because of new ways that government money is allocated and the reduction of government money. It was stated by our president that some people were going to be let go. They are talking about reducing support staff, adjunct part time faculty and classified. Yet, they want enrollment numbers to come up. Full time faculty cost the school way more than us part timers. Their salaries are considerably higher. Their benefits costs a lot. So, it makes no sense to get rid of some of us and hire full time tenure for more than double the costs. I think the declining numbers of student retention and graduation have more to do with a combination of other factors. My experience has seen reasons such as, lack of college readiness – sometimes coming straight from the high schools, which I have seen often relax requirements of core classes focusing more on social, political and sports. Also, we have many students entering who haven’t been in any school in years. These people have kids at home, jobs, and little money. Some have little to no computer skills. Government cut backs don’t allow ” career students” any more. The new plan is “Guided Pathways”, which in general is a good idea. But many kids fresh from high school have no idea what they want to do. Many older students have no clue how to use a computer, yet computer classes aren’t in every “Pathway”. I’ve personally as an advisor, seen 3 students drop from school and 2 get all the way up to choosing classes and then decide not to. These 5 students of varying ages, were not college ready and were overwhelmed. The new state-wide system, which cost millions and is still experiencing numerous hiccups is scary to many and isn’t user to many. Another reason I’ve seen dropped students- they weren’t assigned an advisor, or weren’t assigned one who was familiar with the particular program. These students I see every day, have tons of credits, often enough for 2 degrees but their classes are all over the place( this is why pathway can be good). They run out of federal money and quit before completing, even though they have tons of credits. I’d like to see within the pathway idea, more classes that “fit” into numerous pathways. The part-time , adjunct faculty, part time hourly and the classified staff working for full time are comparable to what nurses are to doctors! We’re in the trenches with the students. We are the support. Not the problem.

    • AdjunctNation Editorial Team

      @Eileen Bury thanks for your comment. In WA, often part-time and adjunct faculty are cut during times of budget crises because of union contracts that call for adjunct union members to be let go before the full-time faculty union members. Keith Hoeller and other Washington State adjunct activists have been writing and speaking about this for many years. AdjunctNation has published many articles about the work of adjuncts in your state to better the working conditions for the thousands of adjunct faculty who, as you say, are “in the trenches,” with the majority of the state’s undergraduate college students.

Leave a Reply

Keep in Touch With AdjunctNation

Graphic Graphic Graphic


Want to see your advertisement on Click here.


Want to see your advertisement on Click here.



Want to see your advertisement on Click here.

Recently Commented

  • Kimberly Williams: I was a non-traditional adult learner who returned to college to earn my undergraduate and...
  • Kimberly Williams: Got it.
  • Dr. Njenga Solomon: My heart shudders when higher education regulatory body – Commission for University...
  • Ron B.: Great piece that describes the lives of so many adjuncts.
  • sazzyjim55: As I read this it reminded me of the craziness I went through a few years back working full time,...