Want Student Retention? Hire More Full-Time Faculty

When I returned to teaching more than a dozen years ago, I taught a great deal of developmental writing. At that time, the City University of New York (CUNY) used an entrance exam for First Year Composition (FYC) placement whose prompt instructed students to write a persuasive letter, generally addressed to either school (often college) or community officials. I quickly realized that a major problem for many of the students was lack of knowledge of how the institutions they were addressing work–particularly college. A “dean,” for them, was someone you were sent to when you were in trouble. A “provost” was unheard of and the students had only the fuzziest idea of what a college “president” might do.

It wasn’t the students’ fault that they didn’t know these things. Few came from families with any experience of college and many were immigrants. My college tried to address this, creating an “Introduction to College Life” course, but it could not count for graduation and so is not covered by most financial aid. It is still offered, but too few students take it. Individual teachers address this (I certainly do), incorporating exercises in FYC that teach about college while teaching writing, for example, but this is rarely enough.

In our roles as advisors, we on the faculty try to address this problem on an individual basis, but we rarely have time to provide the ongoing support needed. With the growing emphasis on adjunct labor, “service” requirements for tenure-track and tenured faculty have grown to such an extent that advisement, much more invisible in terms of annual evaluation than committee work, tends to get shunted to the side.

And advisement is exhausting. One has to stop thinking about anything else and focus completely on the individual student, seeing each situation as unique–no matter how often something quite similar has cropped up before. One cannot hurry and, way too often, one cannot provide all that the student needs. Advising drains the advisor emotionally and can lead to real frustration with necessary college bureaucracies.

The tendency might be to hand advisement functions to professional advisors, taking responsibility from the faculty–and this is done frequently. The problem with this is that faculty advisement can be much more fruitful for both student and faculty. Because of their classroom experience, faculty can more easily judge students and their possibilities, and can generally direct them to more fruitful paths than can professional advisors. Also, advisement gives faculty a chance to get to know students on a level not found in classroom interaction, a boon to both parties. Finally, not being part of the campus bureaucracy full-time, faculty are less likely to fall into a mechanical advising routine.

The greater burden of advisement placed on tenure-track and tenured faculty by the reduction in their numbers relative to students is exacerbated today by the recent reduction in counseling staff in high schools:

There are two college counselors at Midwood for about 800 seniors each year, most of whom apply to college. The office’s support staff has been cut in recent years from five people to two.

That’s from The New York Times yesterday (Midwood High School, right next to Brooklyn College, feeds students into almost all of the CUNY schools, including mine). Cuts at Midwood are similar to cuts elsewhere. They are leading to students coming to college even more unprepared to face college life than they were a dozen years ago.

If we are going to successfully address what are quite real retention problems, our advising needs to be better today than ever before–and not advising from siloed professionals but from faculty members who are directly involved with student education. This can’t happen, though, until pressures on permanent, full-time faculty are reduced… and that won’t happen until many more are hired, making the adjunct a rarity by converting part-time jobs to full-time with all of the duties implied.

Will that happen? I hope so. After all, those who complain most about retention are also those who hold the purse strings, so logic would hold that they would loosen them and hire more full-time faculty.

Unfortunately, as John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards keeps saying in The Searchers, “That’ll be the day.”

11 thoughts on “Want Student Retention? Hire More Full-Time Faculty

  1. The cuts at high school are devastating. One must remember that in addition to helping with college applications, high school counselors have to help guide students through the registration process, and yet are also supposed to be there for real counseling of personal and emotional issues: for too many of our students they have no other access to mental health support (although my school does have a fulltime Ph.D. psychologist, much of her work involves testing for special education purposes).

    Advising SHOULD include actually knowing and understanding the student. Too often students do not have access to that in high school. Those of us high school teachers who attempt to to take this on often have far too many students to do so properly. My current load of students is 144, 62 of whom are seniors of whom I had no knowledge until I arrived in the school in August. Often high school teachers have at most one year and sometimes only one semester with students. We may develop relationships that continue beyond that time in our classroom – this year I wrote recommendations for three girls whom I taught in another school for the first semester last year, when they were juniors.

    If we are going to maximize the learning opportunity for our students, we need to provide them with PERSONAL advising, with continuity.

    Not all teachers/professors are qualified to do this. It requires a skill set that only partially overlaps what one needs to successfully instruct students. I am somewhat rare among my high school peers in actually having had some formal training in counseling in a long-since abandoned masters program. I also by nature am inclined to focus on how I reach my individual students. That requires a great deal of time and energy, starting with calling all my families at the start of the year to establish a relationship with the parents as well as the student. That leads to a LOT of ongoing electronic correspondence, occasional phone calls, and even face to face meetings. Getting to know the students means learning what else is going on in their lives, including the extra curricular activities in which they participate and why,

    ASCD has an initiative about educating the whole child. That is critical in K-12 education, especially with adolescents attempting both to sort out who they are as they simultaneously try to figure out what comes next in their lives.

    Those teachers who can take the time to be effective counselors/mentors are often the critical ingredient in the success some students achieve, despite what otherwise might be obstacles or uncertainties.

    Here I note I get neither remuneration nor official time for these efforts. I do what I do because I believe it to be essential to my being an effective teacher. It is why my work week is not even close to 5 x 7 hours a day I must be in school that some assume is my work week. First, I am usually in school for closer to 9 hours (6 Am to 2:45 PM or thereabouts) and then there are the hours of electronic communication, paper correction, planning and more. During the school year my average work week is closer to 70 hours.

    I am 68. I have retired twice. I no longer have the energy to keep living on 5.5 hours of sleep a night. I have responsibilities to a spouse living with cancer. There are things I would like to be able to do for myself. Yet because it makes a difference for young people, and I remember the difference some teachers and professors made in my life, I feel obligated to continue so long as I can teach with integrity. Because I was hired by a principal who has known me for about a decade and provides me that kind of environment, I commute 45 miles each way. So add another almost two hours to my daily obligations. At least when driving I have time to reflect – about what I will do while heading to school, about what I have done on the way home. That is also part of my work as a teacher.

    We need more teachers and full-time professors.

    We need fewer students for each of us if we are to serve as their advisers.

    And many will need some training, including in cultural diversity, to be able to perform that role effectively.

  2. This issue is connected to one of the big problems advocates for higher ed face in the public discourse too, which is a more generalized misunderstanding (and/or lack of interest, and/or ___) about the structures of our institutions. It’s hard to win arguments about administrative bloat, for example, among audiences who don’t know/care that provosts and professors aren’t the same thing.

  3. While I agree with you that what we need is more full time professors, many will say that is impossible, blah blah blah. So we need to come up with an alternative to show them that this will work.

    We have that, because it is already working, at Vancouver CC: the Program for Change. There, faculty can teach full-time if they so desire, but if they do not want to, they can remain part-time. The beauty of it is they are paid pro-rata, so that everyone gets paid on an equal footing, and no one thus feels exploited.

    I do not understand why here in the US we are so ready to dismiss something without even trying it… Wait. I do know. It would turn administrations on their head.

    Here’s the program. You can take a look: http://vccfa.ca/newsite/?page_id=587

    Besos, not borders,

    Ana M. Fores Tamayo, Adjunct Justice
    Petition: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/better-pay-for-adjuncts
    Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/AdjunctJustice
    Tumblr: http://adjunctjustice.tumblr.com

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