By Richard Vedder
At a conference my sidekick Bryan and I attend a few weeks ago in New York, I kept hearing that part-time "adjunct" faculty do a poorer job than full-time tenured faculty, largely because of a lack of institutional commitment, and, perhaps, because of inferior qualifications.
I have had one of the Whiz Kids, Matt Denhart, investigating this issue. It is difficult to evaluate. We lack good measures of student performance. The institutional data on adjunct faculty is imperfect. However, we can see to what extent increased concentration of adjunct faculty leads to higher student attrition. While our research is not complete, and further testing is possible, we do not obtain statistically significant differences in attrition rates because of variations in the proportion of part-time faculty on the staff (a pretty good proxy for adjunct status).
Even if adjunct faculty presence led to slightly higher attrition rates, the question would arise: given the vastly lower cost of hiring adjuncts, on cost-benefit grounds does it make sense to hire lots of expensive full-time faculty with lifetime employment contracts? The answer, of course, is no, but we persist in maintaining the current system with its high costs in order to provide economic rents to those fortunate enough to have tenured positions.
To be sure, many tenured faculty do significant amounts of research as well, and some provide good advising services to students. But it is highly dubious that any objective appraisal of tenured faculty positions would find that the costs of these positions are low in a quality and output adjusted sense relative to the alternative, adjunct faculty.