photo by P. A. Jensen

In theory, higher education is in crisis. In practice, don’t be alarmed.

Higher education may indeed be in crisis, and for a variety of reasons, but one reason that gets a lot of attention is the hiring of faculty. Specifically, universities are increasingly hiring part-time instructors—often called “adjunct professors”—instead of hiring full-time, tenure-track faculty.

This isn’t a crisis. All things considered, this might be a good thing.

First, let’s sketch a typical complaint about the “adjunct crisis.” A newspaper or magazine will write an article that chronicles the day-to-day life of an adjunct professor. The stereotypical story features an adjunct fresh out of grad school, with a stack of student loans, struggling to pay those loans and her rent with the tiny stipends she gets from teaching. She often teaches three or four or five classes, often at several different low-level institutions. Because she’s part-time, her teaching load changes from semester to semester, and her pay is a small fraction of what tenure-track faculty make. Maybe she lives out of her car. She has it hard, as the story goes.

The stereotypical article then launches into a litany of problems with current higher education, and typically blames the state of affairs, with varying degrees of subtlety, on political conservatives, whether because they defund higher education or have gutted secondary education. There is reference to administrative bloat, with the implication that faculty suffer as administrators get richer. The article then concludes with a call for more funding, both to benefit the faculty who teach and the students whom they teach.

We’re going to give a revised version here.

Let’s start at the beginning, or what counts as the beginning for much of the higher-education debate: high school. In high school in 21st-century America, students are told that college is the key to success. They are told this at all relevant levels of schooling, and by a variety of authority figures, ranging from high-school guidance counselors at the low end to presidents of the United States on the other. College equals success, they’re told. The students believe it, their parents believe it, and many of their authority figures in high school believe it.

Having worked in the bowels of higher education, I’m not so sure it’s true.

I subscribe to the notion, often heralded by conservatives, that college education is primarily a signaling device: it shows who the best are. Or, at least it used to. I can say firsthand that, at least at a mediocre liberal arts college, faculty know who the best students are when they arrive as freshmen. They stand out. These best students are the best students because of traits they already possess. This is different from the notion, which is often assumed, that the best students are the best students because of knowledge they have, as in classroom knowledge, often from advanced classes. This leads to discussions of access to quality high-school education, and AP courses, and college-credit courses in high school.

This is barely true.

Instead, the good students are the good students because they a) show up, b) know when to ask questions and when to shut up, c) know how to work hard, and d) know when not to feel sorry for themselves, which is virtually always. This “knowledge” has little to do with previous coursework. It has to do with parenting, or upbringing more generally.

These kids—the kids who know the four life lessons above—were going to do well regardless if they went to college. They would be promoted at the family restaurant where I recently worked. They would be promoted in every area of the retail sector, actually, in no small part because they would just show up every day. They would excel in the trades, again in no small part because of their diligence. They would be good parents. Good youth basketball coaches. Good Scout leaders. Good volunteer firefighters. Good churchgoers. Whatever—they would be good no matter where they went, and they went to school for thirteen of the first eighteen years of their lives, so they did well there, so they got into college, and they’ll do well there, too.

Herein lies the lie, then, about higher education: college seems to be the key to success, but only because so many of the already successful people went to college, not because college made them successful.

So, they go to college, but, you know, correlation isn’t causation.

That we’ve watered down college education generally is a separate point, but it contributes here: now the college degree is even more worthless than it was a generation ago. Regardless, though, it was merely a signaling device that someone was relatively diligent, and maybe of a particular socioeconomic class. Truth be told, the education itself wasn’t the point.

As I mentioned, this is a common line of thinking, so we will not belabor the point here. For our purposes, though, it’s important to recognize two things. First, so many people are going to college these days because they’re told to, but many of them aren’t getting much out of it, because the kind of person who goes to college only after some aggressive nudging typically isn’t supposed to be there at all. It doesn’t matter what happens in college—the second tier of students aren’t going to thrive, at least in general. They were mediocre students in high school, and they will be mediocre students in college, too. (If you don’t believe me, there’s peer-reviewed education research that says as much. As a start, Google Scholar me.)

Second, the same kind of sorting happens in graduate schools. This is more to the point of our higher education crisis. Graduate school is like how college used to be: it signals that you’re one of the “good ones.”

I can say firsthand that few people in graduate school are actually dumb. At least, this is true in traditional graduate schools in traditional fields, where students attend full-time and constantly interact with faculty members. I know very little about online master’s mills, but what I do know is not flattering.

Regardless, the people who go to graduate school, especially those who actually make it out with doctorates, are typically not stupid. They might not be brilliant, and they might be a bit lazy, actually, but doing graduate coursework and getting a doctoral thesis approved by the faculty at a major institution requires some ingenuity, as well as some persistence. Typically, graduate school does not teach people these things—if anything, it cultivates what was already there. So, if you have a doctorate, you’re not a total slouch. You might be a flake, but you’re not a slouch, at least not when you need to be. This resembles the “signaling” in college described above, at least before the notion of “college for all” took over.

This is where the college administration comes into the story. In our stereotypical magazine or newspaper articles referenced above, the administration is always the heavy. It is the cold, hyper-rational, heartless force that ruins education. If only they would pay the faculty more, letting them concentrate on teaching! If only they wouldn’t water down education by hiring the adjuncts!

In fact, college administrators have committed a sin, but it’s only a sin in the eyes of the faculty: the administrators have realized that the quality of instruction doesn’t vary much from one doctorate-trained professor to another, whether full-time or part-time. Or, the reasons that the quality of instructors varies is due to classroom presence, and little to do with how much they’re paid. It’s a bit of a crapshoot—they’re all different shades of “fine,” because they all made it through graduate school, which signals that they’re all “fine.” Also, it turns out you can fire an adjunct instructor if he’s not “fine,” but hire a bad full-time professor, and you might be stuck with him for life. Hiring adjuncts might actually increase the quality of education in this small way.

In short, the administrators are aware that adjuncts often teach as well as tenure-track professors. Also, because of the tenure system that full-time professors demand, adjuncts are a more flexible option for keeping the quality of instruction high. In some ways, this deserves a “thank you,” not a rebuke.

Let’s summarize the argument against adjunct instructors so far. The administrators cut funding for teaching and hire adjuncts, which decreases the quality of instruction. The problem can be solved by restoring funding and hiring more full-time faculty, in which case quality of instruction would go up.

No. See above: the argument misses the main point, and eliminates the main problem—ill-prepared, poorly motivated students—from the equation. I can say firsthand that the decreasing quality of incoming students—driven largely by the push for more and more students going to college, regardless if they should be there—does more to decrease the quality of graduates than the quality of instruction does. Further, the fact that our college classrooms are full of mediocre students prevents instructors from challenging the students who should be there. And believe me, no matter if the instructor is full-time or part-time, anybody with a doctorate and an interest in teaching wants to challenge the students, if for no other reason than boredom. Today, they just can’t do that, or can do that less and less. So, quality of the graduates goes down even further.

Also, I’m not sure that the quality of instruction really decreases with adjuncts in front of the room, anyway. I say this because adjuncts are typically charged with teaching introductory courses, which are often large and impersonal and filled with students majoring in something else who won’t care if the instructor is back next term. Instructors also matter less in introductory courses because most of the students are especially unmotivated, perhaps because the course isn’t in their major or because they can’t hack it in college at all and just don’t know it yet (e.g., first-semester freshmen). I’ve taught these courses—I know.

So, that’s the bigger problem: the students, not the instructors, really.

Overall, then, the downward spiral in higher education, in my view, is fueled by two factors, neither of which has anything to do with decreased funding, or inept administration, or the stereotypically conservative view of higher education. In fact, both are fueled by, counterintuitively, increased funding. As discussed, the first factor involves sending more students to college, which requires dollars in terms of expanding campuses, expanding armies of instructors, and increased federal loans and grants. Now let’s talk about the second factor: the increased funding for research.

Funding for research is a politically charged problem, and the issue is typically divided along partisan lines: liberals want more federal funding for research, and conservatives want less. There are shades of gray here, of course: conservatives are often more opposed to federal money for research in the humanities, for example—especially newer, politically hot-button fields—and less opposed to research in the sciences, at least as long as embryonic stem cells aren’t involved. Regardless, the Left pushes for more research funding whenever it can, as do the faculty members themselves.

As politicians, typically liberal politicians, increase federal funding levels for research, the demand for graduate students—who do a lot of the work—also increases. As a result, more graduate students get into graduate school, and more faculty members hire them to do research. More and more graduate students means more and more people with graduate degrees, eventually. So, we have more and more people who are earning graduate degrees, and more and more people who are capable of teaching college-level classes, all because we’re increasing funding.

For many on the Left, this is a good thing. I don’t consider myself on the Left, and I think it’s a good thing, too.

You’re probably starting to see the problem. Also, you’re probably seeing how college administrators might be considered not only blameless, but even heroic, in all of this.

Administrators see this “good thing” for what it is: a growing labor pool. Sure, demand for college instruction is increasing as more students go to college, but the pool of instructors is growing faster, at least by percentage. And we all know that if growth of supply outpaces growth of demand, the price begins to fall. The inconvenient truth is that administrators are paying less for college instruction because they can. It’s what we ask them to do, actually, especially at state-run schools that operate on tax dollars, but also at private schools that run on tuition, which we want to remain as low as possible. Administrators are making economic decisions that have little to do with budget cuts, or animus against higher education, actually. They’re paying market rates for a service—college instruction—where the labor pool is saturated.

Who’s to blame for that?

Also, we rarely read about the full-time faculty at the schools where adjuncts teach. They actually like the hiring of adjuncts, at least a little bit, because it shifts the teaching loads of full-time faculty away from introductory courses and toward upper-division courses, which are typically more challenging and are taken by more serious students majoring in the subject. This is especially true in fields like English and math, where college readiness is nosediving, meaning that non-elite schools have to teach the equivalent of high-school courses to incoming freshmen. It’s one thing to ask someone with a Ph.D. to teach introductory biology at the college-freshman level—the classic Biology 101, 4 credits—as I had the privilege of doing. That can be both rewarding and fun, actually. It’s another thing to ask someone with a Ph.D. to teach English at the high-school-sophomore level—the increasingly common English 080, 0 credits—especially every semester. That’s typically neither rewarding nor fun because the students in those classes are often the students who shouldn’t be in college at all. Faculty in these situations often beg the administration, albeit quietly, to hire adjuncts, or more graduate students, so they don’t have to teach those courses themselves. One sees the point: the college faculty want to, you know, teach college courses. So, the college administration often hires adjuncts at the request of the existing faculty—that’s the “inside baseball” that you don’t read about. Again, I know—I’ve been there.

So, let’s be good teachers and summarize what we’ve learned. Higher education is a mess in no small part because the quality of students is falling, due in no small part to indiscriminately shipping more kids to college, as if on principle. This decreased quality can be measured by academic metrics like test scores and GPAs, but my experience in the college classroom tells me that it’s better measured by other metrics, like increasing laziness and entitlement and self-pity—the skills that no amount of schooling, perhaps outside of military schooling, can help if they’re not already present in the home.

Second, I’m not so sure the quality of instruction is dropping as a result of the increased hiring of adjunct faculty members, really. I’ve seen good adjuncts, and I’ve seen horrible tenured professors. More to the point, the level of instruction might not matter as much as people might think, especially at the introductory or remedial levels where adjuncts are teaching, as instructors there are teaching a watered-down pool of students, and often end up teaching to the middle, anyway, or maybe the bottom. Further, everybody with a doctorate is qualified to teach introductory or remedial courses. That we need to teach so many of these low-level courses is an indictment of the secondary education system, not the higher education system, and to hire full-time faculty members at higher salaries to teach these high school courses is both financially unfeasible and professionally unnecessary. And kinda silly.

Third, and most interestingly, the root of the “adjunct crisis” can be traced to policies of people who most loudly complain about the “adjunct crisis.” In an odd bit of irony, building up the “higher-education-industrial complex” is the principal reason why we have a greatly increased supply of college instructors at the ready, which results in a net drop in price for teaching. These increased numbers of college students and graduate students have not been due to the efforts of conservative politicians, to put it mildly. Instead, they’re the natural economic result of what are largely considered “pro-education” policy proposals at both federal and state levels of government, as well as within the bureaucracies of college campuses and university systems themselves.

Finally, let’s take a couple steps way, way back here. Our nation has produced an educating class of citizens. That educating class is so big, so unnecessarily big, so exceedingly big, that they are fighting amongst themselves for the right to teach. This should be a good thing, not a crisis. This should be a time for pro-education liberals to trumpet their triumphs, not sound the air-raid siren.

If nothing else, if there’s a crisis over too many college instructors at all, maybe it could be solved by making it easier for some of them to start teaching high school, where we need them, especially in science and math. But that’s another article for another day.

For now, fear not the adjunct professor living out of her car. She represents higher education’s success as much as its failure. She apparently just made epically bad career decisions, is all—she should have focused more on economics, and less on English, or maybe alliterative poetry, or whatever. Stated simply, a promising proto-professor primarily proctoring practicals for premeds while drowning in delusion and debt may be difficult to digest, but does not drastically devalue the delivery of disposable diplomas to decent dullards destined for ditch-digging or Domino’s delivery. It’s Darwinian, not diabolical, and deans are downright decent for daring to disregard dreamers’ doomsday drivel.

A crisis? Crazy. Consider it a coalescence of crappy credentialing, confused career coaching, and coddled culture. Kinda counterproductive, correct?



P. A. Jensen is editor of

He lives in northern Minnesota with his wife and son.



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