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First-Year Students More Likely to Drop Out if Taught by Part-Time Faculty, NC State Expert Says

First-year college students enrolled in introductory-level courses taught by part-time or adjunct faculty are more likely to drop out, according to a study by researchers at North Carolina State University.

The study examined four public universities and found a direct link between part-time faculty teaching so-called “gatekeeper” courses and student retention. Students exposed to these instructors were 20 to 30 percent more likely to drop out, depending on the school, says Dr. Audrey Jaeger, associate professor of higher education at NC State, who conducted the study.

Jaeger presented her findings at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting last month.

Jaeger says the individuals who teach these “gatekeeper” courses – defined as classes with at least 90 students, are part of a series of courses and usually are a component of a major or general education requirement – may be less connected to the institution and may also be teaching courses elsewhere, making them less accessible to students.

“The first year of school is a critical decision-making time for students because, according to existing research, approximately 26 percent of student departures happen during the first year,” Jaeger says. “The first year is also when students are typically exposed to part-time faculty teaching large intro-level courses.”

The study also examined “gatekeeper” courses taught by graduate students and full-time, non-tenure-track faculty and found that neither group had a negative effect on student retention. “This makes sense because many graduate students are like full-time faculty – they are on campus, have offices, are engaged with the community and are probably more available,” Jaeger says.

Jaeger says that the number of part-time faculty will continue to rise as universities try to do more with less funding. “Part-time faculty serve a very important need because they help contain costs,” she says. “Research shows that it costs anywhere from 20 to 50 percent less to hire a part-time faculty member than a full-time faculty member. So when you think about all the other demands on resources, you can save a significant amount of money by hiring part-time faculty.”

Jaeger says that institutions need to think about how intro-level courses are taught and examine ways to ensure the success of students enrolled in those courses. She says some possible solutions could include providing more incentives for full-time faculty to teach “gatekeeper” courses and utilizing part-time faculty in courses taught later in students’ careers, when they are less likely to drop out.

“Another solution might be to provide a shared office space for part-time faculty where they have access to a computer, e-mail and a space for advising students,” she says. “Then they are more likely to come and do their work on campus because they have a space and a support system that says, ‘Our institution values you.'”

Jaeger says the role of part-time faculty in student advising also needs to be considered. “We should examine the practice of placing students with the greatest need for supervision, mentoring and support in classes that have faculty who may not be as available as full-time faculty.”

Institutions should also examine what kinds of students typically leave, what classes they are taking and the faculty they are exposed to in their first year, Jaeger says.

“We spend a lot of time talking about student success, but we rarely talk about how part-time faculty fit into that equation,” she says.

So what can part-time faculty currently teaching “gatekeeper” courses do to help their students be successful? Jaeger says they should look at ways to be more accessible and available to students while at the same time balancing other things they have going on in their lives. “Part-time faculty should also know how their relationships with students actually impact student success and be assertive in asking for support systems,” she says.

Conversely, students enrolled in “gatekeeper” classes should find a way to make a connection with class instructors, Jaeger says, whether they’re full- or part-time faculty.

“Students need to be assertive about the support they need for success and should seek time from their faculty. If they can’t get that support, they should find someone who can take time to help them,” she says.

– gregg –

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