Adjunct Professors: The Best Option?

Adjunct professors may be better for some students' academic growth than tenured professors, reports a recent study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University.

The study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that adjunct professors may cause higher academic growth in some students than do tenure-track professors. The growth in academic performance was most notable for students who are the least academically-prepared. Unlike previous studies, which focused on course or program completion, the new research examines measures of student learning including grade point averages, providing a new look into how non-tenured instructors can impact student performance.

One possible reason for the differences in performances of adjunct professors and tenured professors is the amount of time each has available to spend teaching. Given that tenured professors are more focused on research, much of their time is often spent towards their independent studies. On the other hand, adjunct faculty may be more likely to spend more time with undergraduates because their job is not is a guarantee; adjunct faculty know that good results may continue to gain themselves employment or to earn themselves tenure.

Another possible reason for the better performance of adjunct professors could be the relative isolation of tenured professors from non-academic pursuits. Many adjunct professors work part time while simultaneously working in other fields, which may give them creative or new ways to connect with their students. Professors who are active in the workforce outside of academia could be exposed to new methods or practices that may benefit their students, keeping them up-to-date and improving the performance of their students.

As some have noted,, the results of the study may not be generalizable given the quality of the average adjunct at Northwestern, a university regarded in the top twenty schools for undergraduate education. To illustrate, Northwestern adjuncts are generally well-compensated and teach at the institution for at least six semesters. However, the study authors note that despite these factors, the findings suggest that "the benefits of taking courses with non-tenure track faculty appear to be stronger for the relatively marginal students at Northwestern indicate that our findings may be relevant to a considerably wider range of institutions."

The study's findings may indicate a sea change for the role of adjunct professors in the modern-day research university. Similar research from the Brookings Institution, combined with the findings of the Northwestern study, could confirm that the growing practice of both tenuring research-focused faculty members and hiring teaching-focused lecturers may be an effective and efficient way for universities to guarantee a quality education to their students.