A for Adjunct: The Relationship between Adjunct Faculty and Grade Inflation

By Kristy Ju

On a university’s class registration page, there may be hundreds of names listed as “Staff.” Who is “Staff” and how is this person teaching so many courses ranging from Biology to mathematics to English and philosophy?

No master professor is teaching all these courses in a multitude of different fields. 

In fact, the only thing that each listing of “Staff” has in common is that they are adjunct instructors.

In 2009, non-tenure track instructors made up 65.5% of U.S. college and university faculty, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. In 1969, adjunct instructors made up only 21.7% of faculty.

Heated conversations in the treatment of contingent faculty have begun as the number of non-tenure track instructors has increased in recent decades. One common thread in these debates is the lower quality of education that part-time instructors are able to provide — but that doesn’t mean what you think. 

Rather than a lack of commitment or expertise, some argue that a lack of resources and the overwhelming time constraints of teaching several courses at several different institutions at a time contribute to a lower quality of education.

“Most…adjuncts would be giving their students a much better education, were they only provided the support that a college gives its full-time faculty. But they aren’t, and the effect on student learning is—surprise—deleterious,” says Rebecca Schuman, an education columnist for Slate.

“In the vast majority of subjects, when you have an adjunct professor instead of a full-timer, you are getting a substandard education,” Schuman says.

Schuman cites a lack of resources that are available to adjunct professors as a key element in what she describes as “a substandard education,” which may be characterized by grade inflation.

“[A]djunct instructors do give higher grades than do full-time faculty,” says Brenda S. Sonner, in an article published in 2000 in the Journal of Education for Business.

The study compared average class grades provided by adjunct professors and full-time faculty over the course of two years at a small public university.

“Adjunct instructors, hired on a term-by-term basis, are easily replaced; thus, most face serious pressure to earn good evaluations from students,” Sonner adds. “Keeping students happy may mean giving higher, potentially inflated, grades.”  

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats launched an eForum in November 2013. Contingent faculty and instructors around the country were invited to “comment via email on their working conditions, how those conditions affect their ability to earn a living and have a successful career, and how those conditions may affect students and their attainment of educational goals,” according to “The Just-In-Time Professor,” the report published by the House committee.

Although the report has limitations in its scope and lack of scientific evidence, it provides a window of perspective into the plight of adjunct faculty and how it has negative repercussions for students.

“Ninety-eight percent of adjuncts who commented on the impact of their working conditions on their students felt that they were missing opportunities to better serve their students because of the demands on their schedule.”

Students ultimately pay the price for lowered standards when colleges and universities limit the resources available to adjuncts, provide little pay, no healthcare, and no guarantee of employment from semester to semester. Contingent faculty members have an incentive to provide higher grades to solidify good evaluations from students, which may provide more job security. 

Kristy Ju is a senior at University of Mary Washington majoring in English and minoring in linguistics. She became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. University of Mary Washington is home to the Kappa of Virginia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.