Paying for Quality Education

From The New York Times:

Early this year, President Obama announced “version 1.0” of his college-rating system at least in part to help clarify what constituted a good investment for students.

The nation’s college presidents and administrators expressed concern that the ratings would elevate financial concerns above academic ones and said that the criteria — especially the earnings of graduates — were out of step with the true purpose of a university.

But for students and their families, academic concerns are inextricably linked to financial ones. Those two factors converge in the classroom, in a shift taking place in contemporary academic life – the proliferation of adjunct professors. Is taking courses with adjuncts worth going into potentially thousands of dollars of debt? How do adjuncts fit into the proposed rating system for colleges?

In an essay at Guernica, Rachel Riederer points to adjuncts to argue that students aren’t getting as much return as they think they are. As Riederer writes, “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.” For adjuncts, compensation is low: A 2010 survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforceshowed that an average year’s salary for teaching four courses per semester amounts to $21,600 annually, with little if any compensation for work outside the classroom.

The rise in adjunct hiring comes as universities devote more resources to research and student services — U.S. News and World Report rankings are tied to expenditures per student — and less to instruction. A result is that adjunct teachers can little afford to respond to student emails, hold office hours or take time to read students’ homework. A recent study shows a link between high rates of adjunct employment and decreased retention and completion rates.

Ms. Riederer told Op-Talk that knowledge about “the way your teachers are hired, what their responsibilities are, and what kind of support they are able to provide” should be routine knowledge for prospective students. “Universities are under increased pressure to provide amenities along with a college education. I would love if students and parents, when visiting a campus and asking representatives what’s available, when asking about the gymnasium and dorm rooms, would be informed enough to ask what kind of teachers would be teaching different classes.”

Not everyone thinks adjuncts make worse teachers, though. A notable study last year showed that adjuncts may better prepare students for more advanced courses in their discipline, and there are those that argue that students benefit from teachers who aren’t distracted by research obligations. Meanwhile, still others wonderif tenure-track professors are better able to help students integrate into college life.

Read the full story here.