Students Pay When Colleges are Underfunded


Any way you cut it, the community colleges are under-funded. We are some $2300 to $2500 below the national average in per-student funding. While our funding levels began to increase somewhat as California pulled out of the recession beginning in 1996, given the 16% increase in the number of students we're serving (from 1,336,000 in fall of 1995 to 1,548,250 in fall of 1999), the rate of funding per FTES actually declined from $4279 in 1997-98 to $4202 in 1999-00 (Nussbaum, March 2000). A recent analysis by the Chancellor's Office suggests that had the community colleges gotten their full 11% share of the mandated Proposition 98 funding, we would have received another $2.3 billion.

How have we managed? In part, by deferring physical maintenance, underinvesting in instructional equipment and materials, foregoing faculty professional development and providing reduced student services. In part, we've managed by having higher class sizes; the California community colleges average a student-to-faculty ratio of 30:1 compared to the national average of 20:1. We've carried teaching loads 25% heavier than the national average. It is also clear that community colleges have relied heavily on part-time faculty to balance the books.

Some districts have made cumulative investments over many years in a full-time tenured core of faculty, while others have not. The ratio of full- to part-time faculty as a percent of credit instruction varies enormously from district to district in California community colleges. The ratio ranges from a high of 83.1% (Siskiyou Joint) to a low of 39.5% (Yuba) (Chancellor's Office Report, Fall 1999; California Federation of Teachers document). The systemwide average has hovered in the low 60s, though some improvement has occurred in the last two years as the state has emerged from the recession and overall budgets have begun to increase. The Chancellor's Office reports that the percent of instruction taught by full-time faculty rose to 63.4% in fall 1999. This however is still more than 11 percentage points away from the system goal of 75%, established by AB1725 over a decade ago.

But what does this litany mean? Ultimately it means that community college students have paid the price for the consistent underfunding of public higher education. It's time to reverse this trend.

Vincent Tinto has argued that beyond the demographic variables associated with student success, the most powerful predictor of student retention is contact and interaction with faculty members. When students interact with their teachers-informally in the halls, in student club meetings, in labs or offices on campus, during office hours both scheduled and impromptu, at plays and musical performances, and at community events-faculty and students interact and gain a sense of each another beyond the classroom. We know that the more involved students are on campus, as tutors or student representatives or in any organized groups or events, the more likely they are to persist toward their goals, and to make it to their next stage of achievement. While part-time faculty may wish to participate in these myriad ways with our students, they generally are limited in their ability to do so.

As Norton Grubb points out, over-reliance on part-time faculty undermines collegiality and increases the sense of institutional fragmentation. Full-time faculty bear the essential responsibilities for general institutional maintenance (Honored But Invisible, 330-336). In some colleges there simply are not enough full-time faculty to do this work. Peer evaluation, program review, preparation of accreditation, governance, faculty hiring and curriculum development and renewal-all are necessarily borne by full-time, tenured faculty. If we consider the higher class sizes and the higher teaching load, and couple that with the increasing institutional burden created by over-reliance on part-time faculty, we can see that educational integrity is threatened. Ultimately, our ability to attract and retain high quality teachers will also be eroded.

This is particularly troublesome given the nature of our student body. Many of our students, given the demands of family and work life, by necessity attend college part time. It is difficult for them to sustain connection to the college community. Increasing numbers of our students appear as well to be moving from one institution to another, taking a course here, another there. And part-time students drifting from part-time instructor to part-time instructor, or as Grubb notes, from institution to institution, in the long run stymies efforts to create coherent educational experiences. While the push to standardize curriculum and requirements at the state level is ostensibly pursued to help students in their transition from one institution to another, it should be noted that such efforts can undermine the efforts of any one college to create integrated contexts in which students can learn (Grubb, 352). Grubb points out that tendencies toward fragmentation are exacerbated by state policies such as common course numbering systems and standardized course descriptions. While he notes that many of these "disintegrative and centrifugal forces are outside the control of the community colleges," he suggests that institutional practices which support good teaching and effective educational programs can help (352-355).

The notion that adequate undergraduate education and student preparation can be accomplished simply by having students select courses in a cafeteria approach-a course from column a, another from column b-belies the growing understanding that what students need, and what keeps them on track in pursuing their educational objectives, is connection. In the courses and programs they take, students need to make connections among the varied disciplines and projects, requirements and assignments, academic and applied knowledge. Ultimately, whatever the objective or major, education is about connection-to the historical dramas of humanity across varied disciplines and cultures, connection to the cumulative set of skills and techniques in both the material and intellectual worlds, connections ultimately to oneself and one's place in the world. Well-designed educational experiences heighten the opportunities for students to make such connections.

But the trend toward hiring increasing numbers of part-time faculty is generally not matched by institutional commitment or programs to link the part-time instructors to the college community or curriculum. Part-timers all too often are hired to teach disconnected courses without knowledge of the place of the course in the overall curriculum. If faculty don't know how courses are related to one another, how can we expect our students to know? As Grubb points out, the idea that "teachers can be seen as interchangeable parts in a large `firm' producing courses, or that English 10 and Business 101 can be taught by anyone with appropriate credentials," assumes that "educational programs can be subdivided in this way, and that continuity among classes and collaboration among faculty are unimportant" (336).

Similarly, education requires human connection. Students need connection to one another in the learning process, connection to their teachers in both the formal and informal interactions of class and office hours, connections with counseling faculty who have time to address their short and long term needs, connections with skilled faculty in libraries where students learn and practice the tools of exploration, connections to caring and concerned staff in offices and laboratories where students matriculate and log in hours of practice. These connections are vital if students are to persist and to succeed. Again, over-reliance upon part-time faculty undermines such connections. While many part-time faculty struggle to hold unofficial and unpaid office hours, students cannot count on connection with part-time faculty outside of class. And overburdened, fulltime faculty, teaching heavy loads while struggling to meet administrative deadlines and requirements necessary to sustain their departments and programs, will necessarily give shorter shrift to non-required interactions with students. It should be noted that the multiple demands of program maintenance and instruction tend to fall more heavily on occupational faculty, who simultaneously must market their programs, recruit and place students, solicit equipment donations and defend their often higher-cost programs.

There are other, and more ominous, trends to consider. Institutions of higher education rely on the traditional protections that tenure and due process provides for academic integrity and freedom-for faculty and ultimately for their students. The ability to be honest, and to engage in full exploration of ideas and opinions in classrooms as well as in deliberative policy discussions, is enhanced by the institution of tenure. Part-time faculty do not share in those protections. According to the Chronicle for Higher Education, national reports indicate that part-time faculty are "getting dumped for things tenure-track faculty do with impunity-teaching controversial material,fighting grade changes, organizing unions" (Schnieder, "To Many Adjunct Professors, Academic Freedom Is A Myth," 12/10/99). And notes Schneider, "the lack of protection makes academic-freedom violations of adjuncts almost impossible to track."

This vulnerability of parttime faculty may be one of the reasons for the findings of Moore and Trahan regarding the relationship of tenure status to grading practices. In comparing grades of 417 introductory level college courses taught by all ranks of faculty, they found that the grade point average for courses taught by lower status instructors is substantially higher than that of higher status instructors (Sociological Perspectives, 1998 special issue). The authors speculate that adjunct faculty are by necessity much more vulnerable both to student grade complaints and negative student teaching evaluations. Hiring and retention of part-time faculty are often highly dependent on student evaluations, which in turn are highly sensitive to grading practices. This suggests that part-time faculty are routinely placed in situations that pit institutional pressure against their best professional judgment. The recent surge of concern about accountability and outcomes promises to exacerbate such pressures.

If community colleges are to succeed, state policy makers and system leaders will need to recognize the systemic ills caused by chronic under-funding. Ultimately, creating effective teaching communities as well as communities of learners will require targeted investments of both resources and spirit. To engage our students effectively and link them to us, to convince them to stay when so much pulls them away, requires dedication and skill. To summon on an ongoing basis the energy needed-to revitalize programs, to communicate an infectious spirit of inquiry and learning, to sustain ongoing laboratories of curiosity and achievement-cannot be done by tired faculty who believe that their institutions are fundamentally hostile to them. We must find ways to create healthy regard for the work of faculty and for the work of the staff who labor alongside. Without a climate of respect, all the resources in the world can't create healthy educational environments. But without sufficient resources, over time, our educational energy and spirit is sapped.

If, as Thomas Merton says, the purpose of education is to show students how to define themselves "authentically and spontaneously in relation" to the world, then as hooks suggests, faculty must themselves be connected, impassioned and engaged (hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 199). While material conditions will not guarantee that spark, without sufficient support, the spark cannot be sustained. Taking heart requires both. And the time is now.

NOTE: The Joint Legislative Audit Committee held an investigative hearing into the use of part-time faculty in the community colleges. Part-time faculty from a range of organizations and colleges testified, including FACCC, CCA/CTA, CCC/CFT. The Academic Senate was asked to speak to the educational implications and impact of the reliance on part-time faculty, and the professional status of part-timefaculty. Representatives of the Chancellor's Office, as well as CPEC, and CEOs selected by CCLC also provided testimony. The hearing, conducted by Assembly Member Scott Wildman, Joint Committee Chair, clearly signaled interest in the Legislature over the working conditions of part-time faculty as well as growing use of part-timers, in spite of the standard set in AB1725 over a decade ago that 75% of all credit instruction should be taught by full-time faculty. If you are interested in purchasing the tape of the hearing, you can contact your legislator.