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Without full-time faculty, community colleges can’t help us

A recent publication out of Harvard University has received a lot of press. America’s Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity, by Robert B. Schwartz and Rachel Lipson, details the potential role US community colleges can play through case studies of five community colleges. The focus of the book is on the investments that states, local governments, and employers made to support the five community colleges.

Another hopeful op-ed, published earlier this week, echoes the sentiment that community colleges have a big role to play in America’s resurgence. The problem I see with both of these works is the assumptions they make about the readiness of community colleges to take on this lofty role.

For years, community college administrators have decimated the ranks of their full-time faculty. Instead of hiring full-time instructors, administrators have explicitly preferred part-time instructors, hired more often for their subject matter expertise rather than their ability to teach. We have heard horror stories of itinerant part-time instructors who travel between schools in an effort to stitch together full time work.

Adjunct instructors do much of what a full-time faculty member does, but one critical function they don’t perform is the development of new classes and programs. This course and program development is key to building workforce capacity in the district. It is also what gets eliminated when enrollment declines.

That administrative strategy, which is presumably a cost-control measure, eviscerates the college’s ability to respond to the needs of the community and its employers. Worse, that plan makes it exceptionally difficult to rebuild that capacity later, if and when the need arises.

Full-time faculty create new courses and programs

We’re now at a point where politicians, employers, and community members – all of whom have been paying for community colleges all along – expect to have these resources available, but there are none to be had. In other words, the cupboard is bare.

In WCC’s case, between 2012-13 and 2020-21, the full-time faculty decreased from 195 to 155. That’s a nearly 21% decline. And that shrinkage reduced the College’s capacity to build new programs, design new courses, and add workforce capacity.

Fortunately, the size of the administration ballooned during the same period. WCC is chock full of administrators – including 12 Vice Presidents – but it can’t respond to the instructional needs of the Washtenaw County economy nearly as well as it did when it had a 20% larger full-time faculty.

If this same crap has been happening at community colleges around the country, and these institutions have traded full-time faculty members for more administrators, it is doubtful that they will be able to drive anything in the foreseeable future.

Photo Credit: David Stillman , via Flickr