Change is Here for Higher Ed

The times have surpassed the model, and change is here

About 90% of all college students in the US are enrolled in institutions that face potentially existential challenges. For these institutions, change is not an option; it’s a necessity. While the public’s perception of “college’ may — almost unconsciously — focus on the Ivies, highly elite privates and the 63 institutions that are member of the Association of American Universities, only 4 million students enroll in these elite, affluent, and largely residential institutions.

But the vast majority of US college students, 18 million or so, are enrolled in community colleges and public and private colleges and universities that are much more local and regional in their focus, and far less affluent than the top 10%. Virtually all of these colleges and universities are in need of significant structural alignment given market changes related to evolving learning styles, rapid industry innovations, global competition, new technology, and an unprecedented and unpredictable political landscape that is understandably skeptical of their business model.

Faculty Drive the Bus(iness)

It’s often said that without students, there would be no colleges. However, one could equally say that without teachers there would be no colleges. Teachers bring to the academic enterprise both extensive experience and a deep understanding of and commitment to learning as the core of education. Frankly, of all the parts within the higher ed business model, the most important is the faculty.

Historically, faculty deployment and tenure structure have set out a largely — almost exclusively — full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty as the ideal structure for providing college and university education. From the 17th Century, when the first colleges were established in what is now the United States until the middle part of the 20th Century, this model prevailed. But now?

Recent — and Fundamental Changes to College Faculty

As recently as 40 years ago, 70% of faculty were tenured or on the tenure track at colleges; now, that figure has dropped dramatically. In the last two decades college budgets have been. For example, in 2016, public funding for public two- and four-year colleges from states was more than $15 billion below the amount they received in 2007. Private school tuition has soared.

Among the casualties within campus: full-time faculty. The US Department of Education reports that about 76% of college faculty are now off the tenure track, meaning they are part-time adjuncts or full-time but “temporary” (i.e. with no access to tenure). At present, these part-time and non-tenure eligible faculty represent an estimated 1.3 million out of a total of 1.8 million faculty.

Gradual Dependence and No Way Back

Gradually, over the recent decades, university administrators (especially among the non-elite 90%) have more and more come to depend of their use of their use part-time faculty without tenure. Nationally, this has saved billions in full-time salaries, health and benefit costs, and money needed to renovate, maintain and build facilities. For example, a college might pay an adjunct $18,000 for teaching six courses a year (three each in the fall and spring terms) rather, than paying $70,000 a year for a full-time faculty member who’d teach the same courses. These savings are so great that it is hard to imagine a return to the pattern that prevailed for centuries. The change has been so substantial that many colleges and universities have come to depend on part-time, adjunct faculty members to provide a majority of a college’s instruction, especially among lower division, undergraduate courses.

As far reaching as these changes have been, there have also been fundamental changes in the role of department chairs and program directors. These faculty-managers are expected recruit, hire and supervise small armies of part-time faculty, who can number more than 100 in some departments. As the number of inexpensive adjuncts grew and college budgets shrank, there is realistically no viable return to the previous domination of full-time faculty hiring.

The Time for Change is Now

It is time to confront the reality of substantial numbers of part-time faculty, and to design systems to make this new reality both more efficient and effective. Ironically, we can say that higher education began the gig economy — without knowing it or being known for it.

That has begun to change — at least around the edges of higher education. Even students, and certainly start-ups, and even some colleges and universities are addressing college learning needs with relevant economic models at lightspeed compared to higher ed. Outlier.org has developed edu-tainment in calculus, and Knack, for example, has developed a platform that is essentially the Uber for college tutoring. A student hops on the app, finds a subject-matter expert whose tutoring reputation has been posted through reviews, bids on a fair hourly price, and schedules meet times within literally seconds. Florida Poly recognized how the untapped talent of top students and Knack’s innovative app could help mitigate learning loss during the pandemic and is ushering in huge returns.

Ways Change Can Happen

Globally, we are facing significant teaching and learning challenges, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). By 2025, it is estimated that there will be over 3.5 million unfilled STEM positions in the US alone. Despite these industry demands and enormous career and financial opportunities, we as a nation continue to struggle to recruit, educate, and inspire enough students sufficient enough to plug and fill a leaky and narrow STEM pipeline to fill the gap.

Certainly, one way to advance higher ed’s old school machinery is to re-fashion the business model. Like Missouri’s moves a few years ago, policymakers in Iowa recently submitted legislation to eliminate tenure in colleges. Still, other states are looking to gradually disable tenure through legislative actions.

Yet other, more fitting approaches include institutions that proactively innovative on their own by developing faculty hiring and promotional processes that meet faculty, student, and institutional needs without infecting the entire operation with bureaucratic malaise. Nationally ranked Florida Polytechnic University, centered between Tampa and Orlando, developed organizational structures with an entrepreneurial eye to cultivate talent, design curricula responsive to industry, and assemble hiring practices that can be responsive to an ever-changing economy. Furthermore, while 51% of faculty at most colleges nationally are part-timers, Florida Poly has taken a different approach with a faculty body that is only 15% adjunct.

Other institutions, such as Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University, have taken far-reaching and highly innovative approaches to implementing highly disruptive models that address virtually all aspects of their respective institution for strategic gain.

In the following paragraphs, we outline a more modest innovation, but one that can be easily adopted by virtually all institutions of higher education in the United States, yet can make important contributions to the flexibility of academic operations, as well as the efficiency and effectiveness of academic programs.

A Faculty Marketplace

We propose to develop and build an entirely new operational model for faculty hiring and assessment that aligns with today’s gig economy, and that is particularly promising for more flexible, efficient and effective hiring and retaining of part-time faculty. To replace the out-dated and inefficient way that part-time faculty are now hired we have developed a technologically sophisticated platform to empower universities to find top, available talent and seamlessly hire, assess, and re-hire without the friction of the massive bureaucracies that currently exist. By using validated teaching reviews, secure credentialing affirmation, and inter-connected institutional systems, a dean or department chair can hire an adjunct for the class needed, the time desired, at the rate offered with simply a few clicks on an app.

The Faculty Marketplace we envision will greatly enhance the efficiency and effectives of the processes of identifying, recruiting, and assessing the very large numbers of part-time faculty that constitute the majority of the teaching workface in many colleges and universities. Faculty Marketplace will especially have a positive impact on the work of department chairs. In large, urban and public institutions, chairs of departments that teach critical introductory elements of core undergraduate programs (mathematics, composition; language, communication; social sciences; business, e.g.) often find themselves finding teachers for a hundred or more course sections and then assessing the work of these teachers. Faculty Marketplace will enhance the quality of these processes, and greatly reduce bureaucratic complexities for faculty mangers.

Part-time faculty would also benefit from such an approach. A Faculty Marketplace will significantly help them identify and land jobs, offer more choice, help them gain exposure, increase their reputation, improve the management of their schedule and potentially maximize their compensation while connecting with an online community of peers. And in the post-COVID world in which online and hybrid instruction will continue long after colleges and universities return to face-to-face teaching and learning, access to a regional and even national source of employment for experienced, talented teachers could greatly benefit both institutions and teachers themselves.

Faculty Marketplace, could easily become the gig economy equivalent of Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, GrubHub, and DoorDash that now dominate other industries. As we wrote above, through its use of growing numbers of part-time teachers, higher education became the pioneer of the gig economy — long before the term was coined. Isn’t it time for higher education to adopt the powerful, technology-driven applications that have made these “newcomers” to the gig economy so well entrenched, so quickly?

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