Examining Student Retention: Study Links Drop-Out Rates to High Numbers of Adjunct-Taught Courses

Jun 22, 2010

A study published recently in the journal Educational Policy found that students who take large numbers of courses taught by part-time faculty in their first year are less likely to return as sophomores. However, institutionally-specific findings suggest that the underlying issue may be one of administrative support.

Student Relationships

Keeping Students Connected

There are three key elements to improving educational attainment rates: College access, student persistence and graduation, or, getting people through the beginning, middle and end. Although college access and graduation get quite a bit of attention, persistence, or student retention, is crucial for connecting the two goals.

The issue of student retention is important to individual students because it typically takes less time and money to complete a degree at a single institution, and many dissatisfied students end up dropping out altogether rather than transferring. But it's even more important to schools and the states in which they reside. Keeping students, especially high-performing ones, is key to institutional finances and reputation. And local communities and state governments both benefit from having students stick around to finish their degrees because it increases the likelihood that they'll stay in state when they become productive - and tax-paying - members of the workforce.

The transition between the first and second years is the most crucial time for student retention. Education researchers have found that about 60% of students who drop out do so in their first year - the average 4-year college or university loses 26% of its students between their freshman and sophomore years. And a recent study at the University of Maryland at College Park discovered that the most effective way to predict whether or not students will persist is to measure their attitudes toward the school in their very first term.

There are, of course, many other factors that contribute to student retention, including academic performance, in-state residency and, according to a growing body of research, the type of instructor to which a student is exposed during his or her first year. A number of studies have found a negative correlation between student retention rates and the number of first-year credit hours spent with contingent faculty. Researchers have suggested that this link is due to the importance of teacher relationships for students as they form a bond with their institution and the fact that part-time faculty are much less likely to develop these relationships.

Introductory Classroom

Part-Time Faculty Linked to Decrease in Student Retention

Adjunct, or contingent, faculty include part-time faculty, full-time fixed-term faculty, graduate assistants and postdoctoral researchers. This heterogeneous group is united by teaching outside the tenure track. Because of imbalances in the way that salary and benefits are allocated to tenured and non-tenured faculty, these individuals cost their employing institutions as much as 80% less than a full-time, tenured (or tenure-track) faculty member. As a result, more and more tenured positions are being replaced by non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) reports that, by 2007, contingent faculty made up over 50% of the academic workforce at 4-year public and private institutions. And as budgetary pressures ratcheted up during the recession, the gap widened: Currently, only three out of 10 faculty members are on the tenure track.

Although there has been some pressure to increase the number of tenure-track opportunities, the non-tenured workforce isn't going anywhere fast - school budgets remain tight, and many NTT faculty indicate a preference for the flexibility of adjunct life. Since we can expect these professionals to continue to be a major part of the instructional community, it's important to develop a better understanding of their role and how it affects students. Toward that end, researchers Audrey J. Jaeger and M. Kevin Eagan recently published a study that attempts to more carefully tease out the relationship between contingent faculty and student retention rates.

Jaeger and Eagan's study builds on past research in this area by disaggregating types of contingent faculty in order to isolate the causal relationship. Based on institutional faculty data, they separated contingent instructors into three categories:

  1. Full-time, non-tenure-track
  2. Graduate assistants
  3. Part-time 'other,' which includes adjunct faculty, part-time lecturers and postdoctoral scholars

They were also able to compare the effects of contingent faculty on first-year student retention across multiple types of institutions by drawing from a single public university system since all schools within the system rely on the same faculty definitions. The system, which remained unspecified in the report, is apparently a large one - it educates 36% of the state's college students. Furthermore, while it retains a slightly higher percentage of students between the first and second years (80% as compared to a national average that ranges from 72% to 79%), the system is currently under pressure from local government to increase retention and graduation rates. In recent school years, institutions within the system were required to set specific goals in these areas and submit a plan for achieving them to the state office.

After attempting to collect data from all institutions within the system, the researchers were able to work with six different schools. All are 4-year colleges and universities that include undergraduate instruction and are primarily residential. Jaeger and Eagan categorized them based on the 2000 Carnegie Classifications, which are primarily organized by size and number and type of degrees granted:

  • One doctoral-extensive university
  • Two doctoral-intensive universities
  • Two masters-I universities
  • One baccalaureate college

As a control, Jaeger and Eagan also explored student variables that have linked to retention. Although the relationships weren't consistent across institutional types, they frequently found links with first-year college GPA and in-state residency status. Other factors that had some influence included enrollment intensity (defined as the number of credit hours a student completed in his or her first year) and whether or not a student had declared a major by the end of the first year. They also found a link between race and retention at one institution, but note that this may have more to do with the individual school's culture than a broad pattern.

Finally, the study also controlled for two factors that could influence whether or not a student encounters more contingent faculty: Financial need and a low high school GPA. Students with greater financial need are more likely to be working during traditional class hours, and evening and weekend classes are especially likely to be taught by contingent faculty. Students who had a low high school GPA are likely to have taken more time off between high school and college. These students are therefore also more likely to be working during traditional class hours. Jaeger and Eagan found that these factors did correlate to more exposure to part-time faculty but did not, by themselves, link to a lower probability of retention.

Student Working

After examining data from three to five cohorts (per school) of full-time, first-year students who began between the falls of 2002 and 2005, Jaeger and Eagan found that more exposure to contingent faculty led to lower probability of student retention across three of the four institution types. Highlights of the results by institution type include:

Baccalaureate: This group included one institution with five student cohorts. The researchers found a 2% drop in retention with a 10% increase in exposure to either 'other' contingents or full-time, NTT faculty. Because there's no graduate student instruction at this institution, this category was not included.

Masters-I: This group included two institutions with a total of seven student cohorts. They found an especially high correlation between instruction by 'other' contingent faculty and high drop-out rates: For every 10% increase there was a 7% drop in retention probability. The relationships were lower for grad students and full-time NTT instructors at 2% and 3%, respectively.

Doctoral-extensive: This group included one institution with four student cohorts. The researchers found that for every 10% increase in students' exposure to 'other' contingent faculty, they became 4% less likely to be retained. Every 10% increase in exposure to grad student instruction decreased retention probability by 3%, and there was a non-significant negative effect associated with exposure to full-time NTT faculty.

Doctoral-intensive: This group included two institutions with eight total student cohorts. The two doctoral-intensive schools represented a significant departure from the other three types of institutions - an increase in exposure to contingent faculty actually correlated to an increase in retention probability. Specifically, a 10% increase in exposure to 'other' faculty, grad student instruction and full-time NTT faculty correlated to a 3%, 2% and 3% increase in retention probability, respectively.

In order to understand why these schools demonstrated the opposite effect, Jaeger and Eagan performed in-depth interviews with administration officials at each institution. They uncovered three characteristics that the two schools shared, which stood out from the other institutions in the study:

  1. Both schools demonstrated the attitude that part-time faculty are important contributors to student learning. This stands in contrast to most colleges and universities, where contingent faculty are often treated as 'second class,' in spite of the fact that they make up more than half the academic labor force. These positive attitudes led administrators to offer more support for contingent faculty development, which presumably translated into improved instructional abilities.
  2. Both schools were also exceptionally focused on providing support for the challenges typically faced by part-time faculty, such as large lecture courses and a lack of knowledge about campus resources.
  3. Finally, administrators were already aware of the link between part-time faculty and student persistence (or lack thereof) before the current study, and had sought to rectify this problem by improving their support efforts.

Student in Lecture

Are Contingent Faculty Failing to Form Meaningful Student Relationships?

Popular explanations for the negative link include the fact that part-time faculty tend to spend less time preparing for class, have fewer interactions with students outside of class and are less likely to engage in 'active and collaborative teaching techniques.' Jaeger and Eagan's research suggests that student interactions form the most crucial element of the problem: A previous study indicated that full-time NTT faculty are more like tenure-track faculty because they spend similar amounts of time preparing for class. But when Jaeger and Eagan isolated data on full-time NTT contingents, they still found a negative correlation with student retention. This is consonant with studies that have found that full-time NTT faculty don't interact with students outside of class much more than their part-time contingent peers.

But there's something to be learned from Jaeger and Eagan's findings with the two doctoral-intensive institutions. There may be a relatively simple way to deal with the link between contingent faculty and low student persistence: Provide more support for part-time faculty. Giving them the time and opportunity to interact more with students, as well as the professional development opportunities that will strengthen their teaching practices, appears to almost eradicate the problem.

Surprisingly, the two researchers decline to make that suggestion when analyzing the implications of their work for policy and practice. This may be due to their sensitivity to the budget problem, since providing more support and training to contingent faculty is likely to increase institutional costs. Instead, Jaeger and Eagan point to ways that institutions can keep their contingent workforce while minimizing the effect on first-year students. Their suggestions include incentivizing tenure-track professors to teach more introductory classes and offering more upper-division courses to part-time faculty. Advanced students are more likely to have already formed strong bonds with their institution and are less likely to need extra-curricular guidance from instructors. Furthermore, adding more introductory classes to tenured professors' course loads may improve their flagging commitment to teaching.

Along these lines, the Jaeger and Eagan point out that the next logical avenue for research into this problem is to perform a course-level analysis of the link. If researchers can identify which courses or types of courses have the most detrimental effect on student retention when taught by contingent faculty, academic departments will be better able to strategically place their teaching staff.


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