Focus on adjunct quality, not quantity

As a way to save costs, community colleges have increasingly hired adjunct instructors. Bargain that they are, part-timers also allow schools to easily fill gaps and expand course offerings.

Some full-time College of Lake County instructors now are calling for an increase in full-timers at their school. They fear that too much dependency on adjunct teachers weakens consistency and continuity for students and puts added stress on the tenured faculty.

Perhaps so. But missing from the debate is what should be the No. 1 concern when determining which teachers should stay and which should go: How well do they do the job? Adjuncts who are performing in the best interests of students should see their contracts continued. Teachers who aren’t, whether they are full or part time, are the ones at which to aim the boot.

Community colleges in the suburban area rely heavily on part-time instructors. McHenry County College has more than twice the number of adjuncts as full-timers. At Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, 60 percent of the courses are taught by part-timers.

Adjuncts often are paid by the course and receive few if any benefits. But besides the cost savings, there are good reasons for schools to keep them around. Many have daytime jobs in a variety of fields, and they bring real-world experience to the classroom. They also allow a college flexibility in staffing as enrollment fluctuates.

The CLC instructors are quick to point to the downsides, however. A high turnover rate among adjuncts means the full-time staff must take the time to mentor new hires repeatedly. Also, part-time teachers might be less available to advise students outside of class.

CLC math instructor Byron Hunter says finding part-timers able to teach upper-level daytime classes is often difficult and may impede the progress of students who want to transfer credits to a university.

These are valid concerns that need to be addressed when CLC negotiates contracts for both its tenured and nontenured faculty. Besides pay, however, the discussions should include proposals that will improve teaching, such as professional development opportunities and more formal evaluation processes. Incentives for adjunct instructors like College of DuPage’s award for outstanding part-time faculty also could encourage better teaching skills.

Community college instructors are hired to educate. Their effectiveness as teachers is far more important than finding a magic formula to determine how many should be full time. If schools employ adjuncts who are earnest about teaching, committed as public servants and effective in the classroom, their numbers should be less of an issue. The CLC professors have reopened a valuable debate. Let’s hope that students and learning stay at its core.