Ask A Silly Question. Get A Silly Answer.

Here’s the question: Do full-time faculty members help students finish college? Kevin Carey, a Washington, DC think tank director, posed this question on the Chronicle’s Brainstorm blog. He tells the story of a panel discussion that focused on student success. At that panel, Dr. Cary Nelson, pointed out that colleges with the best student completion (aka graduation) rates are those that employ the fewest part-time faculty. Kevin Carey then points out an inconvenient truth, one which neither Nelson nor any other tenure advocate points out when spouting in public about the impact of non-tenured faculty on student retention and graduation rates.

Carey writes: “There are some obvious correlation/causation issues to resolve here. Because full-time faculty members are more expensive than contingent faculty members, the colleges that tend to employ a lot of them tend to be wealthier than those that don’t. Wealthy colleges also tend to enroll a disproportionate number of wealthy, academically well-prepared students, who are more likely to complete college. So yes, colleges with stellar college graduation rates are more likely to hire full-time, well-credentialed, tenure-tack professors to teach. But they’re also more likely to have lots and lots of other things that also independently improve graduation rates. Resource advantages in higher education tend to be highly co-linear.”

Well, yes. Harvard student preparedness is just slightly better than that of students accepted into, say, open enrollment programs at other four-year colleges. Furthermore, Harvard uses non-tenured faculty called preceptors. These non-tenured faculty get five years to teach at Harvard and then they’re out. No exceptions. They earn close to $50K per year, and are supported by the university in many of the same ways full-time faculty are supported. Preceptors make up about 15 percent of the faculty at Harvard, and they teach, primarily, undergraduate courses.

Then we have another inconvenient fact, student graduation rates are falling at public four-year colleges, where the minority of faculty teach off the tenure-track. P.D. Lesko wrote about this in a blog entry.

If we want students to graduate, we have to make sure they are prepared to do the coursework, and make sure that we staff courses with the best prepared and most fully supported faculty, whether they be full- and part-time. As I’ve written before, the problem is with the way in which part-time faculty are hired, supervised, compensated and trained—the problem is with the system, not the type of faculty appointment. We don’t need more full-time faculty to guarantee student retention and success. We need a drastic overhaul of the hiring, training, evaluation and supervision methods currently used with the hundreds of thousands of non-tenured faculty who teach tens of millions of students each semester.

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