Increasing Adjunct Engagement

Student retention and success rates improve as adjuncts become more involved in the life of the school.
Solving for X


In the U.S., the six-year graduation rate of undergraduate students currently stands at 59 percent for public institutions. Research shows that retention and graduation rates improve when students are engaged in the classroom and feel a sense of belonging on campus. Both engagement and belonging are enhanced by faculty interactions—but at many schools today, freshmen receive up to half of their instruction from adjunct faculty. These adjuncts often do not have a close connection to the school themselves, so they can’t foster it in their students; and few of them have been trained in the high-impact teaching methods that keep students engaged in the classroom. For these reasons, we know we need to make adjuncts feel just as connected to our school as our full-time faculty.


Today, it’s the soft skills that are much in demand. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Wharton, the London Business School, HEC Montreal, and many other business schools are offering courses that focus on the soft skills. For instance, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California, I teach ‘‘Leading with Mindfulness and Compassion,” which covers how students can leverage teamwork, cooperation, mindfulness, and compassion to achieve personal fulfillment and success in their careers. The course is consistently waitlisted as 100 students hope to secure one of 30 spots in the class.

At California State University (CSU), which has 475,000 students across 23 campuses, the graduation rate for first-time freshmen is about average: 57 percent. But through the Graduation Initiative 2025 (GI 25), the CSU Chancellor’s Office has set a goal for reaching a six-year graduation rate of 70 percent within the next seven years. At the same time, CSU seeks to improve the fouryear graduation rate of transfer students from 73 percent to 85 percent.

The College of Business Administration (CBA) at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona can be proud of its six-year graduation rate for first-time freshmen, which stands at 66 percent. However, our four-year graduation rate is only 23 percent.

The reasons for this low rate are complex. Our school is made up of about 5,000 students drawn from our diverse, urban area. Half of our students are transfers from community college, and they usually work more than 20 hours a week. In 2016, 42 percent of the entering students had high financial need. In addition, many of our students switch to the business program after performing poorly in courses that will not count toward a business degree.

At Cal Poly Pomona, as at many universities, adjuncts are teaching a significant portion of our classes. During the 2007– 2009 recession, the CSU system instituted a hiring freeze and required faculty to take furlough days to reduce costs. At the CBA, the percentage of full-time faculty dropped from 67 percent in 2008 to 50 percent in 2016. Today, faculty retirements and attrition are making it difficult to improve tenure density. The result is that about half of our students are being taught by adjunct faculty.

Research indicates that adjuncts may not do as well as full-time faculty in improving graduation and retention rates. Not only do adjunct faculty generally spend less time preparing for class, they also spend less time interacting with students, which means they are not helping students develop a sense of belonging on campus. In addition, according to a national study conducted by Roger Baldwin and Matthew Wawrzynski, adjuncts use fewer student-centered teaching methods and give more multiple-choice exams, which are less engaging ways for students to learn. This is concerning because adjuncts often teach large class sections to freshmen—the very group of students that the college is seeking to engage.

Finally, adjuncts might have difficulty fostering a sense of connection between students and the university because they often do not feel that connection themselves. Studies frequently show that adjuncts feel isolated and excluded from the colleges where they work. As noted in AACSB’s accreditation standards, adjuncts do not typically “participate in the intellectual or operational life of the school beyond the direct performance of teaching responsibilities.” Unlike tenure-track faculty, they are not always aware of the college’s mission, vision, and values.

At Cal Poly Pomona's CBA, our goal is two-fold: We want to improve student success and graduation rates, and we want to accomplish this in part by making sure adjuncts are better teachers who feel a strong bond with the school.


We believe there are five key steps involved in making adjuncts feel more engaged with the school and more committed to improving student success rates:

Inform adjunct faculty about the problem. At most schools, committees and discussions devoted to student success rarely include adjuncts, and information about how to improve retention and graduation rates is infrequently communicated to them. If adjuncts are made aware of the problems and asked for their input, they not only will feel more invested in the school, they might also have creative ideas for how to improve student success rates. In addition, adjuncts might be more motivated to include high-impact teaching practices in their own classrooms once they know how much student success hinges on their own teaching.

Provide adjuncts easy access to student support information. For adjuncts to be able to direct struggling students to the proper campus resources, they first must possess the information themselves. They need to know about free campus tutoring services, psychological services, advising services, student clubs, thestudent writing center, the career center, and financial aid opportunities.

Build adjunct-student relationships. We know that students feel more connected to the school when they participate in advising opportunities, get involved in co-curricular activities, or are required to attend campus events. Adjuncts, too, will feel more connected to the school if they are encouraged to advise students, participate in student clubs, or attend school events. When adjuncts feel a deeper bond with the school, they can draw on that bond to help students develop the same sense of belonging.

Reward behaviors that promote student success. Professional development is not always available to adjunct faculty, and when it is, adjuncts do not always know about it. If schools encourage faculty to learn more about high-impact teaching practices, and compensate adjuncts for their time and effort, adjuncts will quickly see how much importance the administration places on student success.

Measure the impact adjunct faculty have had on improving student success. Having quantifiable numbers for student retention and graduation rates can help administrators identify where problems exist and show them where particular efforts have failed or succeeded. Moreover, when administrators can prove a positive impact, they can obtain more resources to direct toward student success initiatives, and they can gain more faculty buy-in.

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FACULTY HEAD COUNT: Between 2008 and 2016, the number of adjunct faculty began to equal and sometimes exceed the number of tenured faculty at Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Business Administration The school began to consider how it could make adjuncts feel as invested in the school as their full-time counterparts, so that the adjuncts, in turn, could help students feel more connected to the school.




At Cal Poly Pomona, we are focused on following those five steps. In the CSU system, the expectation is that adjunct faculty primarily will teach. The campuses are unionized, so any time adjuncts participate in service activities or attend extra events on campus, they need to be compensated. Nonetheless, administrators are working to improve student success by providing professional development opportunities equally to full-time and adjunct faculty.

For instance, the CSU Chancellor’s office has several programs that faculty can participate in if they need help revamping courses that have high fail rates. In addition, faculty who teach online or hybrid courses are encouraged to become Quality Matters (QM) certified, ensuring that anyone teaching in the digital space meets a certain standard of quality. Faculty teaching in our master’s program receive a stipend for attaining the QM certification. They also are required to provide a report demonstrating that, as a result of their additional training, student learning has improved and pass rates are higher.

Adjuncts also can go to Cal Poly Pomona’s Faculty Center for Professional Development to take workshops on topics such as high-impact teaching practices. A few adjuncts participate at a very high level and are recognized leaders in areas such as accessibility and QM.

However, only 10 percent of the business faculty who participate in events at the faculty center are adjuncts. We know there are many reasons for their low participation. The adjuncts who hold positions at several universities might not have the time; those who are graduate students might not have the interest. Those who are retired executives want to give back by sharing their knowledge, but they also have many other demands on their time. At Cal Poly Pomona, 60 percent of the CBA adjuncts have significant outside employment, which makes it impossible for them to participate in daytime faculty development programs.

Nonetheless, the CBA is implementing three new approaches to engaging adjunct faculty in student success:

Providing comprehensive information. Our Freshman Year Experience course not only teaches students how to thrive in college, but also introduces them to business concepts. Adjunct faculty who teach this course must be familiar with campus support services and the opportunities available to first-time freshmen. They also must have a broad knowledge of business. To help adjuncts teach this course, the CBA has created an online repository of support information.

Tracking activity. The CBA also is in the process of implementing Digital Measures activity tracking specifically for adjuncts. Adjuncts will attend an orientation session that will familiarize them with the available materials, the best ways to promote student success, and the goals of GI 2025. This session also will provide an opportunity for adjunct faculty to meet each other and begin building a community.

Recognizing leaders. The CBA is planning three annual awards for adjunct faculty: one for promoting student achievement; one for exceptional teaching, especially in the areas of innovation and technology; and one for scholarship, designed for adjuncts who bring their research into the classroom. The recognitions will come with monetary awards.


Even with these efforts, we are not compensating adjuncts for higher levels of involvement. If we had adequate funding, we could pay faculty to participate in advising, internships, and course development, as well as attend courses on high-impact teaching practices.

But a more valuable goal would be to inspire adjuncts to become more invested in the college mission. To accomplish this would require a radical change in a culture that currently ignores the potential of adjuncts to make an impact on student learning and retention.

The issues of tenure density and student success are more interrelated than many administrators realize. If, as seems likely, adjuncts continue to make up a large portion of the business school faculty, administrators will need to build the connection these teachers feel with their colleges and universities. Only then will they see improved outcomes in student success.

Ruth Guthrie is a professor of computer information systems and interim associate dean of undergraduate programs and student success at Cal Poly Pomona. Cheryl Wyrick is a professor of management and human resources and associate dean of administration and accreditation.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's January/February 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].