25.9.13

INCENTIVES MATTER.

In Atlantic Business, Jordan Weissmann introduces economic logic into the continuing discussion of the Northwestern study of teaching effectiveness (see here and here for background).
Nothing about the Northwestern study suggests that colleges should embrace the rat-hole model of labor management. Rather, it's another piece of a growing economics literature that, taken as a whole, suggests exactly the opposite: Poorly paid, part-time faculty are poor substitutes for full-time professors.
That seems obvious, but in professor-speak, even the brightest among you will benefit by a modicum of repetition.  Or we remember Vince Lombardi practicing 48 and 39 and 31 Wedge every day.
To review, what does the study tell us? If colleges pay their professors a middle-class wage to teach year-in and year-out, they might just do a better job of it than faculty who focus on research and publishing.
Yes, and at Northwestern those professionally respected and effective lecturers are working in an environment where a critical mass of motivated and responsible students is likely present to counteract the party pathway that diverts students elsewhere.  In higher education's subprime sector, however, the rat-hole model of management is a false economy.
The Northwestern study is just one paper, part of a small-but-growing volume of economics research into which kinds of professors make the best teachers. And collectively, they suggest that schools may be hurting students by over-relying on adjuncts, especially at the community college level, where part-timers are most prevalent.
There are subtleties. But note, in particular, part-timers who can say no might be more effective.
A retired executive teaching in his spare hours probably has more time to devote to students than an adjunct juggling 3 or more courses to make ends meet.

Reflecting on both studies, the team concluded that while a faculty full of adjuncts might hurt graduation rates overall, part-timers could still be very effective in certain subjects — especially pre-professional fields. Adjuncts might be great for teaching high level computer science and less great for teaching Chaucer.
Note, though, that a retired executive or a moonlighting engineer is in a position to be more selective about picking up a night class. Think DePaul rather than Joliet Junior, or Marquette rather than Wisconsin-Waukesha.

The teaching point, though, is that attempting to offer what looks like a college program on 2s6d a day isn't sustainable as a business model.

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