Many universities around the country are shifting their teaching loads to adjuncts – or part-time instructors – rather than assigning courses to tenured faculty. This has led some higher education experts and advocates to complain that instructional quality suffers as a result. However, a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research flips that assumption on its head, finding instead better student outcomes from courses taught by professors without tenure.
The difference was particularly stark in introductory classes. According to Tamar Lewin of The New York Times, students who took a beginner course from an adjunct were more likely to subsequently take another course in the same discipline and earn a higher grade there than their peers to took the intro course with tenured or tenure-track professors.
The study analyzed academic outcomes of over 15,000 students enrolled in Northwestern University between the years 2001 and 2008.
According to the authors — David N. Figlio, director of Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research; Morton O. Schapiro, the university's president; and Kevin B. Soter, a consultant — there was "strong and consistent evidence that Northwestern faculty outside of the tenure system outperform tenure track/tenured professors in introductory undergraduate classrooms." The differences were present across a wide variety of subject areas, the study found, and were especially pronounced for average and less-qualified students.
"Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial," the report said.
The authors concluded that alarm over declining teaching quality due to growing number of adjuncts was unwarranted, and actually quite wrong-headed. If the study results are confirmed, this could mean an even faster growth of adjuncts, a profitable proposition for universities struggling to work under tighter budget constraints.
However, it is hard to predict if follow-up studies in other universities will reach the same conclusions. Northwestern may be a special case; it's a large, prestigious university with selective admissions criteria and a large pool of highly qualified graduate students available to assist instructors. Its students are typically high-achievers and, as at least one critic points out, researchers are making some unwarranted assumptions themselves when they put the students' desire to take another course in the same discipline down to the quality of their previous professor.
"I'm kind of dubious," said Anita Levy, a senior program officer at the American Association of University Professors. "I'm not surprised that introductory classes might be better taught by contingent faculty members simply because most tenured faculty more often teach advanced courses. My worry is that a study like this can be used to justify hiring more contingent faculty who won't have due-process protections or job security and might not even have offices. It's part of the just-in-time, Walmartization of higher education."