The Student Cheat-Sheet for Understanding the Faculty Crisis


As a student, you may feel that the faculty crisis only tangentially affects you, yet the reality is that it can and does have a direct effect on the overall educational experience you’ll have in college. For that reason, it’s imperative to learn as much as possible about the faculty crisis. You want to be a smart, savvy consumer who gets the most for their money, and college is one of the biggest purchases you’ll ever make, so you should know about issues that will impact the value and quality of the experience. If you don’t know where to begin, don’t worry; we have you covered. Here’s a quick guide to understanding who’s really teaching you and what that may mean for your financial investment in college and ultimate success as a student.

Who Is Teaching You?

Do you know what role your professors play at your school? You should. Read on to learn more about the different titles your professors can have and the pros and cons of each being your instructor.

Teaching Assistant:

Teaching assistants are graduate students at the master’s or doctoral level working with a professor in their department, usually to gain experience and tuition breaks. Pros: TAs are often (but not always) closer to your own age, something which may make them less set in their ways and more flexible. Cons: Teaching assistants have not yet graduated from their degree program and most, while knowledgeable, don’t have the same degree of experience as a professor.

Adjunct Professor:

Adjunct professors are those who work part-time for the university or college. Once, adjuncts were largely individuals who were retired from teaching or professionals working in the field, but today adjuncts are much more likely to be master’s or doctoral program grads who cannot find full-time employment as professors. Pros: Adjuncts are often highly credentialed in their field and as qualified to teach as any other professor. Cons: Unfortunately, the part-time status of adjuncts’ jobs may force them to teach at several schools which means more time spent traveling and less time to prepare for and meet with students.

Lecturer or instructor:

If someone is listed as a lecturer or instructor, this usually designates that the individual is simply teaching at the school and has no research obligations. Pros: Lecturers generally know a lot about their field, are highly qualified, may have more time for students because they don’t also have to complete research. Cons: Because they aren’t doing research while at the school, however, lecturers may have weaker ties to the university and it may be hard to keep in touch as you progress through school.

Assistant Professor:

When academics enter their field, they generally begin as assistant professors. This position can be tenure track and requires the same amount of research, preparation, and teaching as other professorship positions (sometimes more, as young professors work their way up the academic ladder). Pros: Your assistant professors will have graduate degrees and should be highly qualified. Cons: Because assistant professors are new to their field, they will have less experience and usually aren’t tenured.

Associate Professor:

Associate professors are those who are on the tenure track (or who have already obtained it after being promoted to an associate professor) but have only been on the job six to eight years, depending on the institution. Pros: Associate professors are highly qualified and are tied to the university through tenure. They also do research, so they will be in the loop about their given field. Cons: There are few cons to having an associate professor as a teacher, though some will have less experience than their full professor colleagues and may have more committee and administrative work with their higher rank.

Full Professor:

At the top of the academic ladder are full professors. Full professors have often be working in their field for 15-20 years and are highly experienced. Some may even be promoted to chair of the department or serve as distinguished professors for their schools. Pros: These professors are usually the big names that draw in students to schools and bring in research money. Generally, they will be the most experienced and well-regarded professors at a school. Cons: Most colleges don’t have a lot of full professors on staff, so you won’t always be able to take courses from them. They also often concentrate on graduate-level teaching. While age does offer experience, full professors may be set in their ways, or more focused on research than teaching, but these things will vary largely depending on individuals.

Problems With the Current Setup

The economic crisis and shifting financial priorities have had a big impact on who is teaching America’s college students. A growing number of full professor positions are being cut, filled instead with adjunct and other part-time positions. Budget cuts also may mean that not only is more stress put on part-time professors but also that full professors may be carrying a heavier class load and are saddled with more responsibilities than ever before. Take a look at this information to get a more in-depth look at some of the problems associated with the faculty crisis.

  • Many professors are demoralized by the current setup.From adjuncts trekking from school to school to associate professors killing themselves with long hours to earn full professorships (80 hours a week isn’t unheard of), academia as it is has proven to be pretty demoralizing for a large number of those working in it. Studies have shown that both those at the lower end of the academic spectrum and those in the middle are pretty unhappy with their jobs, which isn’t a good thing for students or professors. Budget cuts haven’t helped, with 96% of professors reporting feeling the cuts are a major source of stress and 48% having considered leaving academia altogether. Not exactly a recipe for success.
  • Non-tenure track faculty are overworked, underpaid, and have no lasting ties to the school. Adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty were once fairly rare, but today make up about 68% of all faculty appointments. In fact, only 27% of professors hold full-time, tenure-track positions. Without any long-term guarantee of employment, these faculty members are often overworked and mistreated. For example, many adjuncts earn $20,000 a year or less (many elementary school teachers make more), teach five classes a semester, or work at three or more schools. It’s hard to be a good teacher when your career is so unstable, and part-time faculty often have little time for interaction with students, research, or other personal development.
  • Schools often have disproportionate numbers of graduate students teaching students.While non-tenure track professors may be overworked, they usually have doctoral degrees in their fields. Graduate students do not. While these students do need experience teaching courses, some schools overuse them to teach. For example, of the 4,235 teachers at the University of Tennessee, 2,062, nearly 50%, are graduate students. With tuition higher than ever before, many students may not be getting access to the highly qualified and experienced professors they deserve.
  • Poor pay and benefits means that schools aren’t attracting the best talent. If your school isn’t paying professors well, then it likely has little chance of attracting those who are the best and the brightest in their field. Those academics will simply seek employment elsewhere where they will be better compensated for their expertise. That’s a big deal because research has shown that the top universities, generally those with the best student outcomes, too, have top-notch faculty teaching and doing research.
  • Smaller budgets and fewer full-time faculty means fewer resources for students. Many schools simply aren’t hiring new professors (faculty numbers have declined by 18%) or are relying too heavily on part-time faculty. This has resulted in an increase in class sizes, greater workloads for professors, and even lowered standards in courses. That’s less time spent on revising papers, answering questions in class, or meeting with students, all of which has a direct effect on educational quality.

Why the Faculty Crisis Should Matter to Students

The faculty crisis isn’t something that just college faculty have to worry about; it’s a problem that trickles down to students, too. Here are some big reasons that students need to educate themselves on the issue.

  • Faculty can have a direct impact on student achievement. Ever had a great teacher in your life? The effort he or she was able to put into helping you excel may have made a big difference in your life, your goals, and your future. Faculty who are overworked, overstressed, or underqualified are going to have a harder time helping you, as they may find it hard to simply stay afloat without any additional obligations. Studies have shown that strong relationships with professors can not only improve student grades but can actually help students stay enrolled in school until graduation.
  • Relationships with professors matter, both in school and after. Being able to build strong, mutually beneficial relationships with your professors is an essential part of getting the most out your college education. Faculty can help you find material to research, apply for grad school, or even just point you in the direction of books and articles that will help enrich your education. After graduation, they can also serve as great references and connections to the field. Not being able to foster these kinds of relationships can be a detriment to you both now and later.
  • Those entering academia will be directly affected.Those who are hoping to one day work in academia (and even those who are not, you never know where your career will take you) should pay special attention to the faculty crisis. Learning about it now can help reveal the many obstacles that students face when making it into work at a university, and talking with professors at all levels can help you to avoid many of the pitfalls affecting those in higher education today. Let this give you some perspective: between 2005 and 2009, 100,000 students graduated with a Ph.D., but only 16,000 new jobs in academia were created.

The bottom line is that even if you’re not planning on working in academia, the faculty crisis does affect you. When choosing a school, take the time to learn about how many adjunct and full professors will be teaching you, and meet with those in your department, if possible, to get a sense of the atmosphere. You should have serious concerns about the ability of the school to provide you with the kind of education you deserve, especially if you’re shelling out tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, so don’t be afraid to learn more and raise questions if your school (or prospective school) doesn’t seem to be up to par.

Posted on 01/17/13 | by Staff Writers | in Education | No Comments »

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