The Perils of Part-Time Professors

A report that was released today made me feel guilty.

The study concluded that the number of part-time instructors who are teaching our kids at public universities and colleges has reached an alarming level.

Temporary faculty members now teach 49% of the more than 1.5 million undergraduate classes that are held each semester at public colleges and universities. The vast majority of these teachers are part-timers, while the rest have no hope of ever receiving tenure.

So why would this study, released by the American Federation of Teachers, make me feel guilty.

Because it reminds me of what I failed to include when I was writing my book, The College Solution. The one thing that I regret is not mentioning that students have a significantly greater chance of dropping out of school if their professors are part-timers. That was the conclusion of two studies released this year that examined attrition rates for freshmen at the University of North Carolina campuses and community college students in California.

A blog post I wrote earlier this year explains why:

Part-time instructors don’t spend as much time with students. After class they are likely to hop in their car and head home, or more likely, to another part-time gig at a different school. (It’s definitely not easy making a living as a part-time college instructor.) So let’s suppose one of these itinerant professors has just taught 300 kids in an intro calculus class. Your child has questions, but the professor doesn’t have office hours. The problem is obvious.

At institutions that relied on lots of part-time instructors, the full-time faculty were less likely to spend as much time helping students, preparing for their classes or using active teaching techniques. Perhaps the full-time teachers figured that if part-timers could get away with minimal contact with students and less prep time for classes they could too! The author of the study speculated that these full-time teachers felt they could be replaced with part-timers and hence felt less loyalty to the institution.

A story in USA Today mentions these previous studies and discusses the newest research as well. Here is another article on the new study from

The latest study concluded that temporary teachers are more prevalent in particular majors. Here is a sampling of the percentage of temporary faculty teaching undergraduates at the nation’s research universities:

Fine arts…………….41.6%
Health sciences……56.1%
Life sciences………..28.2%
Social sciences……..38.5%

These numbers, by the way, would have increased significantly if the researchers had included graduate teaching assistants in the mix. Not a happy thought.

What should you do with this information?

I suspect that many students figure that all state universities are the same so they rely heavily on things like “reputation” when selecting one. When kids do that they are shortchanging themselves. They should spend more time researching schools and one of the areas that they definitely need to explore is how heavily are the schools on their list using part-time instructors.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution.

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