Hit ’Em Where It Hurts

The solution to the higher-ed adjunct crisis lies in the U.S. News rankings.

Courtesy US News Best Colleges.

Courtesy U.S. News Best Colleges

Changes are afoot among us part-time adjuncts who shoulder a hefty majority of college instruction in the United States. We have, for now, the attention of Congress. We’ve got our own snappy hashtags! And we’re methodically organizing ourselves into unions, in my town and yours. Administrations are noticing, and are none too pleased. Sometimes, they go to impressive lengths to prevent a vote. Other times, they just issue veiled threats, saying they’re “concerned” about faculty “ceding their individual right[s]” to the Service Employees International Union, an “outside organization” unfamiliar, “in all frankness,” with “the enterprise of higher education.”

Nice adjunct job you got there—it would be a shame if you didn’t exercise your right to self-determination, and something happened to it. But that’s just it: Adjunct jobs aren’t nice, and many of us feel, in all frankness, that we have little to lose. But sympathy for the adjunct’s plight is limited. (Read any comments section, ever, on any article with the word “adjunct” in it.) We chose, after all, to devote our lives to something so stupid and useless. Supply and demand. Find another job. Bootstraps. I get it.

But here’s what they don’t get: It’s not that adjuncts deserve better. It’s that students deserve better than adjuncts. And the people who decide which colleges are the “best” should be telling you this, but they’re not. That’s why I’m calling on U.S. News, the leading college ranking service in the country, to track the percentage of classes taught by adjuncts in their rankings—and penalize schools that use too many.

Here’s the cold, hard truth every prospective student, and every parent, should know: In the vast majority of subjects, when you have an adjunct professor instead of a full-timer, you are getting a substandard education. To say this, I am admitting that I myself provide subpar service to my students. But I do.

I’m not subpar on purpose—I, like most adjuncts, just don’t have the resources to treat students well. Like, you know, my own office, where I can meet with students when they’re free, instead of the tiny weekly window of time when I get the desk and computer (which runs Windows XP) to myself. I am on campus five hours a week, because when I’m not in the classroom, I have nowhere else to go. If my students need further explanation, they can talk to me in class, or they can wait for whatever terse, harried lines I email them back (if I do; with all the jobs I juggle, sometimes I forget). I teach the same freshman survey over and over again, so I rarely have a student more than once, and thus never build a mentoring relationship with anyone. I am, by virtue of the parameters of my position, not giving students anything remotely near their money’s worth. And hundreds of thousands of adjuncts in the United States are just like me. Most of those adjuncts would be giving their students a much better education, were they only provided the support that a college gives its full-time faculty. But they aren’t, and the effect on student learning is—surprisedeleterious.

As much as I support efforts to mobilize and unionize, we also need a different tactic. Today’s students view themselves as customers, and college as an excruciatingly expensive service. Most humanists balk at this crass, Randian characterization, but not me. I cleave onto it wholeheartedly, because it is in the revelation of the poor “service” adjuncts provide that we might finally hit universities where it hurts: their rankings.

Institutions, no matter what they say, are mortally invested in their placement on the U.S. News Best Colleges list. But although the freely available rankings share data about endowment, SAT scores, class size, and student-to-faculty ratio, they do not list percentage of part-time faculty. That does not mean the ranking metric doesn’t include this data, explained Robert J. Morse, U.S. News’ director of research data. Morse assured me U.S. News is actually “far ahead of the game” on holding institutions who overuse part-time faculty accountable, because in their ranking factor, “schools get more credit for a larger proportion of full-time faculty.” He explained that schools who use a large portion of part-time faculty “score lower” on the ranking metric, but wouldn’t specify how much lower. Is overuse of part-time faculty as bad as a meager endowment? Worse than lackluster SAT scores? It really should be. (If you’d like to do the math yourself, here’s the U.S. News formula for 2014; proportion of full-time faculty makes up 5 percent of the “faculty resources” indicator, which itself makes up 20 percent of the ranking model.)*

To be truly ahead of the game, the “percentage of faculty who are full-time” should be front and center on the rankings list, before even student-to-faculty ratio. Instead, it’s tucked away inside the paid version of U.S. News’ ranking website, so most “education consumers” will never see it—even though it should be the first thing you ask when you and your kid are touring a campus. Whether or not some sports nut who graduated in 1952 gives bank to the football team should matter much, much less than whether or not your professor has slept in a heated house, and thus prepared your lesson effectively.

U.S. News and its ilk must enjoy the power they have over these hapless institutions—so they ought to wield that power for good. Don’t just factor in the use (and overuse) of part-time faculty, but all contingent faculty. Destroy the standing of any institution that does not have a sizeable majority of faculty that are full-time, preferably tenure-track or tenured. Or, at the very least, list the institution’s percentages front and center, with an explanation of why this factor is so crucial in choosing a college. Because this information is not forthcoming on most university websites—and you can see why, when organizations such as the Ohio Part-Time Faculty Association report that my former employer, the “public Ivy” Ohio State, has 65 percent contingent faculty. And yet it’s still ranked on U.S. News as the No. 52 national university in the country. Why? With a percentage like that, it shouldn’t even be in the double digits, no matter how much wealthy former Buckeyes donate.

If a college or university’s ranking—and concurrently, as others are calling for, even its accreditation—could be openly and seriously damaged by the overuse of contingent faculty, then and only then would students and parents actually begin to care, and they’d vote with their tuition. And then and only then would administrations actually begin to … well, “care” isn’t the right word. Let’s say they’d finally find something about contingent faculty to be concerned about, other than the union.

*Correction: This article misstated that U.S. News’ ranking metric is private; the magazine published its 2014 formula here. (Return.)