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The college hunt

April 25, 2009

I’m about to be deep in the throes of the college hunt with my daughter. It’s a process that I’ve been dreading because everyone talks about how complicated it is, but like everything, once you figure it out, it’s not so difficult.
We went on a group tour during a college visit recently and one thing I noticed is that the parents who are about to shell out a fortune in tuition were passive. Perhaps it was that they understood the student guide wouldn’t have a lot of information beyond what he’d been trained to say, but I think it’s also that parents don’t know what to ask in a lot of cases.
There are two questions I think that parents don’t have a clue about, but they are things that I’m very concerned about as an academic myself.
The first question is: Is this institution endowed or is it tuition-driven?
“Tuition-driven” is a term that universities without huge endowments use to mean that their day-to-day operating budget depends heavily on student tuition. This may seem like a no-brainer. Of course, universities depend on tuition. But universities that depend more on tuition than, say, state budget allocations (in the case of state universities) and/or private endowments, could have a different culture than other universities. Think about it. If administration officials, professors, and staff know that their facilities and salaries depend directly on students, students become “customers” and the customer is always right. For parents and students, this may be what they’re looking for — a university that treats its students like, well, well-paying customers. That could include special treatment — in food service, luxury facilities and services, and, one other thing — grades.
The second question that parents may not have a clue about: What is the school’s ratio of full-time faculty to adjunct faculty?
With budgets squeezed, the trend toward hiring cheap labor in the form of adjunct faculty has become epidemic in higher education. Tenure-track and tenured professors are expensive because they have decent wages, good benefits, and they are paid for something that is difficult to measure in terms of a cost benefit — research, innovative teaching, and creating new knowledge. They’re also on campus (theoretically) and available to students.
Adjuncts on the other hand, usually don’t have a real office on campus, have other jobs to supplement their low pay, and are often not in the loop on cutting edge research and new approaches (not always, by any means).
So, will your child have access to a knowledge creator who is bringing that knowledge and passion to the classroom in an environment fully supported by the wealth of resources at the university? Or, will your child be taught by a potentially overburdened adjunct professor who is poorly paid and considered a hired gun by the university?
Try asking these questions during your next college visit. Your student guide won’t know what you’re talking about, but try to find someone who will. Such inquiries are surely as important as knowing what the cafeteria serves for lunch and whether the dorm laundry service will send an e-mail when the dryer is available.

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