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Use of Part-Timers Driving Down Student Success at Community Colleges

When students in remedial and gateway math classes are taught by part-time instructors, they may have better outcomes in their current course and the one that follows, but they're also less likely to take the subsequent course. Why would that be? A new research project by the Community College Resource Center at Columbia University's Teachers College suggested that "inferior working conditions" for those adjuncts — not inferior instructional practices — are responsible for the negative effects.

The finding is important because, according to the American Federation of Teachers, part-time faculty teach more than half of all community college courses (58 percent) and an even higher share of remedial and gateway classes in math and English.

A CCRC working paper hypothesized that course scheduling was a major culprit in three ways: First, part-timers are given "significantly larger proportions" of nighttime and weekend course sections, which tend to draw students from disadvantaged backgrounds and where the outcomes tend to be lower to begin with. Second, those instructors have a harder time finding places to meet with students before or after class during those periods of the week, or gaining access to basic teaching resources such as copy machines. Third, the adjuncts aren't as knowledgeable about the supports that may be available for students on campus, "such as academic advising and planning and financial aid," and are less likely than their fully employed peers to refer students to those services.

The findings were based on a study of six colleges that participated in an Achieving the Dream program, "Engaging Adjunct Faculty in the Student Success Movement." CCRC acted as an evaluator for the project, documenting strategies, participant feedback and outcomes. The program, which ran from 2016 to 2018, found that even something as simple as a faculty orientation for all new hires — full-time and part-time — could have a positive impact on student success. Yet, where adjunct instructors failed to attend orientation, most of the time it was because they didn't know one was scheduled.

Those students who took developmental English with a part-time instructor were about three percentage points more likely to stay with the course to the very end compared to similar students who took the same course with a full-time instructor. Also, they were equally likely to pass and no less likely than those peers to enroll in and pass subsequent courses. However, students who took developmental math with a part-time teacher "were not significantly more likely to persist to the end of the course and pass than their peers who took the same course with a full-time instructor," and they were about four percentage points "less likely to enroll in and pass the subsequent gateway math course."

For gateway classes, the outcomes in math and English were similar.

As the report noted, the challenges faced by part-time instructors tied to their employment status merited "greater attention from researchers and college leaders alike."

The working paper is openly available on the CCRC website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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