How lacrosse, China and adjuncts are changing higher ed

Higher education is facing great pressure to change, and elsewhere in the PBS Newshour Rethinking College series, you’ll learn about some of the most visible trends that are unfolding.

Below are a handful of less-visible developments on college and university campuses — some of which have implications big and small for students and their families.

rethinkingcollegeGoodbye Mr. Chips

Many Americans — especially those who went to four-year, residential colleges — tend to think that professors have it easy: full-time work, summers off and, once they earn tenure, a job for life.

Three decades ago, that described a significant majority of college professors, with three in four either tenured or on a track to earning that status. Today, however, fewer than a third of all college instructors work full time and have a shot at tenure. More than half work part time, and while some do so by choice — the businesswoman or artist who teaches a little on the side — increasing numbers are trying to stitch together a living by teaching courses at multiple campuses, usually without benefits.

The plight of the new majority of college instructors — known variably as adjuncts, contingent faculty members and part-timers — is an emergent story line in higher education, though it remains largely invisible to many in the public. Campaigns to organize these instructors into unions are unfolding in several major cities, and the issue has captured the attention of some members of Congress, who are pushing for better treatment of the instructors.

Colleges have increasingly shifted instruction to non-tenured instructors for some of the same reasons why employers in other industries have done so: to curtail benefit payments and other costs. But in higher education, the issue is complicated by intense debate over whether students’ learning is undermined when colleges lean too heavily on part-time instructors — not because of the quality of their teaching, but because they lack many of the tools (office hours, professional development, etc.) that their tenured and tenure-track peers have to help students.

An international orientation

Ever since World War II, American universities have attracted some of the best international graduate students, and it’s become pretty common for undergrads to have teaching assistants from other countries. These days, undergraduates are much more likely to encounter foreign students — as undergraduates alongside them.

The number of Chinese undergraduates increased by 25.9 percent in 2012-13, 30.8 percent the year before, and 43 percent the year before that. These kinds of increases have brought total Chinese enrollments in American colleges to just over 235,000 students. For many colleges, the motivation is in large part financial, as institutions are seeking “full pay” students from the growing middle and upper classes in China.

While educators hail the learning potential for American students to meet and learn with (and from) Chinese undergraduates, many campuses have seen ugly anti-Chinese or anti-foreign student comments proliferate on social media and elsewhere. And some surveys of international students suggest relatively minimal interaction — and a lack of friendships — with Americans.

Betting on LAX

Chinese students aren’t the only ones sought by American colleges looking for students who can afford to pay. Another target: lacrosse players. Historically, lacrosse has been most popular in Upstate New York and the Middle Atlantic states and many colleges outside those regions didn’t field teams.

Now, Midwestern liberal arts colleges are starting teams. They hope to benefit from lacrosse’s growing popularity, which means that many students who fall in love with the sport aren’t good enough to land a spot on the team of a traditional powerhouse in the Northeast corridor.

But because the sport is popular in prep schools and well-off suburbs, the odds are that many of those lacrosse players are able to afford college on their own. And while lacrosse is growing in popularity for men and women alike, the population of male “full pay” students is in short supply at many liberal arts colleges — and that’s part of why you are seeing more teams in different parts of the country.

Fighting for acceptance

One of the fastest growing segments of American higher education is Christian colleges, institutions affiliated with evangelical denominations with required “statements of faith” and strict codes of conduct. The norm at these institutions has been to bar all sex outside of heterosexual marriage.

As American society has become more tolerant and supportive of gay people, Christian colleges are facing tough challenges — in courts and in public opinion — for their positions. And the opposition isn’t coming from gay rights groups outside the colleges, but from students within. Groups (some underground to avoid having their members be kicked out) are forming and alumni are speaking out.

The debate extends to gender identity, with Christian colleges now fighting for the right to discriminate against transgender students — when not so long ago there would have been no openly transgender students at these colleges.

The job connection

For many students and parents, a key purpose (perhaps the key purpose) of higher education is to prepare young people for the world of work. Increasingly, this means not just curriculums designed to teach a range of skills and competencies, but instruction on how to do a job search and how to be a professional.

Consider two colleges in North Carolina:

At Wake Forest University, students in the “Options in the World of Work” course participate in exercises in which they discuss how to evaluate job opportunities in different localities. The students are divided into small groups, each with an iPad with material designed to compare a specific job in Wake’s affordable hometown of Winston-Salem, and a larger city such as Boston or Los Angeles. Salaries are provided for the jobs, and students are given websites to find out how much they would spend on rent, groceries and entertainment. Students have both credit and non-credit programs to help them prepare — over four years — for the transition to work. The program is considered a national model.

And at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, students are now evaluated based in part on “soft skills,” such as whether they show up for class on time or work well in groups. And the college will issue workplace readiness certificates alongside conventional credentials to recognize those skills. The idea comes from employers, who want these skills stressed so they show up to work on time and with the right attitude about professional responsibilities.

Inside Higher Ed is a free, daily online publication covering the fast-changing world of higher education.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.