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Study: Community colleges relying too much on adjunct faculty

GREENFIELD — Over two-thirds of Massachusetts community college courses are taught by adjunct faculty, which may lead to poor student completion rates, according to a study released this week by the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

The study found that about 17 percent of community college students enrolled in an academic or certificate program complete that program within three years of enrollment. Fewer full-time faculty means less academic advising available to students, and may be a factor in the low three-year completion rate, the MTA suggests, although the study proves no correlation. Nonetheless, the MTA argues in the study for more state funding and for that money to be used to add full-time faculty.

At Greenfield Community College, full-time faculty taught 40 percent of the school’s credit courses during the 2005-2012 school years — a high rate statewide that ranks second only to Springfield Technical Community College (43 percent). GCC did have the lowest total number of courses among the colleges, with just over 1,000 in 2011.

From 2004 to 2010, about 22 percent of GCC students completed their academic programs within three years of enrollment, which ties for second in the state with Holyoke Community College (only Berkshire Community College was higher, with a 23 percent rate). GCC officials say the number has climbed a few percentage points higher in recent years.

“Do I believe that the number of full-time faculty matters to quality of experience? Absolutely,” said GCC President Robert Pura. “Our faculty are wonderful writers and poets and scientists and artists and nurses and police officers who identify themselves first and foremost as teachers, and that matters.”

There has been between 59 and 62 full-time faculty members at GCC for the past 15 years, according to school officials. Since the Great Recession, keeping that number constant has meant making reductions elsewhere, said Pura.

School officials said that in the past five years, the number of part-time faculty members has fluctuated from 137 to 157, in part to respond to a growing student enrollment that also occurred since the Great Recession. There were 144 adjunct teachers last year, including Recorder Editor Tim Blagg, who has taught history there for four years.

In the classroom, the teaching quality and expertise of part-time and full-time faculty can be equal, said Pura. But he said there is no denying the benefit students get from full-time employees who have the time to act as career mentors and advisers.

MTA President Paul Toner took a similar stance, saying that there are many great part-time faculty members teaching in the state’s community colleges.

“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,” he said.

Elizabeth Shevlin, the lead author of the MTA report, said that preliminary data suggests that it is also an issue at the state university level, such as at the University of Massachusetts, and that the association will likely follow up with other studies.

However, “The split between full-time and adjunct faculty is the highest at the community colleges,” said Shevlin. “The community colleges are the largest group of institutions in the public higher education system with 15 campuses and serve nearly 150,000 students in the state in credit and non-credit programs.”

Bristol Community College and Mount Wachusett Community College have the largest gaps with about 77 and 78 percent of courses taught by adjunct faculty from 2005-2012.

A big part of the problem comes from low state funding, argues the MTA study, which is still about 33 percent less than it was in 2001 (when adjusted for inflation). Gov. Patrick and the Legislature increased community college funding this year, a trend that the MTA wants to see continue.

State Rep. Paul Mark — who represents Greenfield and other Franklin County towns in the House of Representatives, and is the vice chairman of the Legislature’s joint committee on higher education — said that the issue continues to be discussed at Beacon Hill.

There will be a commission to better determine the quality public higher education funding needs, he said. And another bill, which focuses on maintaining faculty and college excellence in the state, is working its way through the Legislature.

“I am pleased we were able to take a positive step towards adequate funding of public higher education in the recently signed FY 2014 state budget,” said Mark. “I ... remain committed to making higher education in Massachusetts affordable, accessible, and of the highest quality.”

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