Q: My son is interested in a school that is very popular but has the reputation of not giving students access to "real professors" until the 2nd or 3rd year. Instead, they use a lot of "adjunct" faculty. When I asked the representative of this school about this at a college fair (much to my son's embarrassment), he said, "all our teachers are professors." How do I find out the truth?

A: Remember the TV show that said "the truth is out there"? Well, the truth about adjunct faculty is out there, too, and it's not pretty. Don't expect complete truth from admissions representatives—their job is to bring in as many applications as possible.

Adjunct faculty—also called contingent faculty—teach part-time, maybe one or two courses a semester. They are usually not given the same benefits as full-time staff; they have no health insurance or retirement plan. Therefore, they are much cheaper for the school to hire.

There are two kinds of adjunct faculty: those who teach in addition to their other, regular full-time career, and those who depend upon their adjunct teaching for a living. An example of the first is a lighting specialist who works full-time at a theater but may teach a class on theatrical lighting at a nearby college. This is not exploitation; she is an active professional sharing her knowledge with students, and the college gets someone with expertise that none of their other teachers has. In the second example, teachers—most of whom have masters' degrees or doctorates—are paid anywhere from $1,300 to $1,900 per course, per semester. Obviously, one cannot live on that income, and so the adjuncts need to work at two or three schools to make ends meet.

Colleges do not like to talk about the number or proportion of their part-time faculty.

But you can find out.

Every U.S. college and university is supposed to complete a form called the Common Data Set (CDS). This document includes statistics ranging from the number of applications received, to the number of student transfers, to the number of faculty who have completed their PhD, to the percentage of students who graduate in four years. The CDS also gives the total number of part-time and full-time facultyl.

Any university (a school offering graduate as well as undergraduate degrees) that is doing its job correctly will have some advanced graduate students teaching introductory undergraduate courses. These teachers are apprentice professors, and this is how they gain experience. 

Having around 10 percent of the faculty as part-time is acceptable. This is true also for small, liberal-arts colleges that may need to hire part-time specialists from time to time. Ten percent is fine. Maybe even 15 to 20 percent.

But to go higher than that is a flashing red light! Why would an undergraduate college, with no graduate students of its own, have 40 percent of its faculty listed as part-time?

Because they cost less to hire.

Unfortunately, this problem is increasing rather than diminishing. Yes, full-time professors are still being hired. But their number is far outstripped by the number of adjunct positions. This has been an acknowledged problem in academia for a long time. Thirty years ago the MLA (Modern Language Association, the national professional organization of English, writing and language faculty) said they would do something about the situation. But nothing happened. And that's just in the English department.

How does this affect your son and his choice of schools? Some schools are "very popular" for reasons other than the working condition of its teachers. But if a school is exploiting its faculty, do they really care about the students? If a huge percentage of a college's faculty is part-time, why do they charge so much in tuition? Are the adjunct faculty unhappy? How does that affect the students in their classes? Many colleges and universities are conscientious and reputable employers; but I want to help you discover those who are not.

You and your son need to start digging for information, because colleges may be unwilling to share this. If you visit a campus where many teachers are part-time, see if you can meet any, and ask them frankly what it's like to teach at that school.

This is a nationwide issue. Teaching conditions are driving many talented people out of academia. It would be terrible if conditions were to go back to those of the 18th or early 19th centuries, when only the wealthy could afford to attend college or to be college professors.

A National Adjunct Action Week is scheduled for the week beginning February 25.  More on that is a future column.