An increased reliance on part-time adjunct faculty in the state’s community college system is reducing the amount of academic advising available from full-time faculty and may be contributing to poor student completion rates, according to a study released today by the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
The study, Reverse the Course: Changing Staffing and Funding Policies at Massachusetts Community Colleges, found that less than one-third of all community college courses are taught by full-time faculty and that the rate has been declining, dropping from 34 to 28 percent between 2004-2005 and 2010-2011.
Meanwhile, during approximately the same period of time only17 percent of first-time students enrolled full-time in the state’s 15 community colleges completed their college’s programs. The report defines program completion as receiving a two-year degree or certificate within three years.
“Most of the academic advising obligation falls to the ever-shrinking percentage of full-time faculty,” concluded Kathleen Skinner, director of MTA’s Center for Education Policy and Practice, which produced the report.
The MTA is recommending the following:
• Community colleges should use a meaningful portion of the new funds allocated to them in the fiscal 2014 budget to hire more full-time faculty.
• The Legislature and governor should continue to restore funds to public higher education in future years to implement changes needed to improve student outcomes, including improving community college graduation rates.
• Among other issues, the Special Commission on Higher Education Quality, Efficiencies and Finance created in the budget should examine what impact the loss of full-time faculty has had on students and make recommendations to ameliorate any adverse effects.
“There are many excellent adjunct faculty in the Division of Continuing Education who play an important role in our colleges and universities,” said MTA President Paul Toner. “However, adjuncts are not given the time, the money, the office space or the mandate to provide students with comprehensive academic advising on how to navigate the college system through to job placement or transfer to a four-year institution.”
The FY14 budget provides increased funding for community colleges and the other public higher education institutions. However, when adjusted for inflation, state funding for public higher education is still approximately one-third less than it was in fiscal 2001, the peak year. Meanwhile, enrollment in community colleges increased sharply even as the funding was being cut.
As a result, the MTA report notes, community colleges have increased fees and used some of those funds to hire adjunct faculty to keep up with the demand while the number of full-time faculty funded by the state has remained flat.
Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland said, “Massachusetts needs to be a national leader in public higher education, and that goal cannot be achieved without heightened levels of funding for our state’s colleges and universities. The over-reliance of our community colleges on adjunct faculty highlighted in the MTA report is one of the most problematic consequences of the constrained budgets our institutions have received in recent years.
“Against this background,” Freeland continued, “the decision of the governor and Legislature in the FY14 budget to provide significantly increased support for our campuses is a welcome and profoundly important reversal of this pattern. These dollars will support investments in academic excellence, including more full-time faculty, that the goal of national leadership implies.”
“I’m proud of the substantial increase to public higher education in this year’s budget and feel we must continue to look closely at how we can marshal our resources to best serve our students,” said Representative Tom Sannicandro, the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Higher Education.
During the FY14 budget debate, the MTA strongly supported the higher education funding increases and the creation of the new special commission. The MTA is also supporting a bill to increase the ratio of full-time faculty to part-time faculty in public higher education and to provide benefits to DCE faculty who work at least half time. Currently, DCE faculty who teach even a full course load are not eligible for state health insurance or pension benefits. This bill will be heard by the Joint Committee on Higher Education on July 17.
“As Senate Chairman of the Higher Education Committee, I believe we must continually look at how to target scarce state dollars in order to maximize student success while, at the same time, keep down the costs of attending college and increase accessibility,” said Sen. Michael Moore (D-Millbury).
Joseph LeBlanc, president of the Massachusetts Community College Council, said that while there are a number of personal and systemic reasons not all students graduate from community colleges, the MTA report rightly focuses on the loss of full-time faculty because that loss affects academic advising services that all students need, but that are particularly important for community college students. The MCCC is the MTA affiliate that represents community college faculty and professional staff.
“Community college students often have significant financial and academic needs, and many are the first in their families to go to college,” said LeBlanc. “Many of them need a lot of guidance in order to stay on track through graduation.”
“Students who enroll in our community colleges are actually passing their courses at a good rate,” said MTA’s Elizabeth Shevlin, lead author of the report. “During the period studied, 76 percent passed credit-bearing courses in their first year and 57 percent returned to the college for the second year. Then there is a huge drop-off, as only 17 percent actually fulfilled the requirements needed to receive a diploma or certificate within three years.
“We believe that too many students are falling through the cracks, in part because they don’t have the guidance they need,” Shevlin continued. “Research shows that academic support programs, including academic advising provided by full-time faculty, lead to improved graduation rates. As recently as 2007 a state task force recommended increasing student advising services by increasing full-time faculty. Unfortunately, since then percentage of the faculty that works full time has actually declined.”
Reverse the Course: Changing Staffing and Funding Policies at Massachusetts Community Colleges is available for download.