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Adjunct Faculty and Student-to-Faculty Ratios: What Universities Don't Know

I recently wrote a post blasting the idea of student-to-faculty ratios as a bogus measure of educational quality.  It turns out that  universities themselves don’t have a solid measure of what the ratios really are, or even keep track of the percentage of students taught by tenure-track professors–as opposed to adjunct, part-timers, or graduate students.

Yesterday Inside Higher Ed‘s Scott Jaschik reviewed a new book entitled Off-Track Profs:  Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education, which documents what we know and don’t know about the impact of adjuncts in higher education.  The authors also explore the reasons for the growth of adjunct faculty at some of the country’s research institutions.

I won’t spend the time to repeat Jaschik’s review…give it a read.  I plan to read the book.

Suffice it to say, however, that college administrators and boards of trustees have little idea about how much teaching is performed by non-tenure track faculty.  Their policies–and enforcement of whatever policies may exist–are fuzzy at best, and these trends do have an impact on the educational experience of undergraduates.

[And if senior university administrators don’t have any idea about the impact of adjuncts at their own institution,  you can jolly well bet that admissions counselors won’t know! If you ask, you’ll just get the party line based on goofy statistics that don’t mean a thing.]

One finding at the University of Michigan bears out what one of my readers commented about with regard to student-to-faculty ratios:  often the non-tenure track faculty have much better teaching evaluations than the tenured faculty.  Adjuncts are often better teachers. This fact does beg the question whether tenure is really a useful institution in the 21st century university.

We  may also inquire as to whether the accepted wisdom that “good research informs teaching” holds any grain of truth.  Research faculty obviously believe in this link.  But to read undergraduate teaching evaluations, it appears that most students do not believe it–or at least to not experience the benefits of that research in the classroom.

What does all this mean for you as you seek the best college for you?  First, treat student-to-faculty ratios with skepticism, and second, make sure you seek out the best teachers you can find once you are on campus–regardless of their job title.

Mark Montgomery
College Consultant



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  1. Mark,

    Our College is trying to get an accurate faculty-to-student ratio to report to the Board and post to our facts on our website. I am unsure of the exact formula to use. If I use student FTE/faculty FTE, I get a much lower number than has been reported in the past. Can you let me know the most statndard formula that is used? Thank you for your time.

  2. Dear Kevin,

    I am happy that you are trying to be as complete and honest as possible in reporting your statistics, because as I have said, these stats can be massaged. I would connect with folks at the professional community of “institutional researchers” at campuses nationwide. I might also connect with the folks who collect the “Common Data Set” at the National Bureau of Educational Statistics at the Department of Education. My job was to collect data for our school and report them to the Office of Institutional Research. They didn’t question my methodology much, and I was never given a clear directive on exactly how to do these FTE calculations.

    I hope this helps. If not, send me an email or give me a ring and perhaps I can help you figure out where to go next.

    All the best.

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