Although both figures have fluctuated, increases in the number of faculty members at Oklahoma's public colleges and universities have outpaced enrollment growth during the past 15 years.
But since the onset of the economic recession, that trend has reversed, with enrollment growth outstripping faculty increases.
Since the 1996-97 academic year, Oklahoma colleges and universities have seen their enrollment grow 23.57 percent, jumping from 206,776 in Fall 1996 to 255,503 last year, according to enrollment records from the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.
During the same period, Oklahoma public universities have seen their average full-time equivalent faculty numbers grow 32.94 percent, according to State Regents records.
However, since the 2007-08 academic year — roughly the onset of the recession — that trend has reversed. Since that year, enrollment grew nearly 10 percent while the full-time equivalent faculty total grew only 6.84 percent.
Even after the addition of two rounds of stimulus funding, the Oklahoma higher education system has seen its total appropriations shrink 3.57 percent during that period, records show. The system received $68.8 million in stimulus funds in the 2010 fiscal year and $59.8 million in the 2011 fiscal year.
It's difficult to say with any degree of certainty exactly what factors cause fluctuations in faculty and enrollment numbers, said Ben Hardcastle, a spokesman for the State Regents. But, he said, one of the factors that likely contributed to the overall increase in faculty members was a greater reliance on adjunct professors.
Adjunct faculty members — temporary, untenured instructors who often hold full-time jobs outside academia — may teach three or six credit hours per semester, Hardcastle said.
So where one tenured professor may have taught five courses a decade ago, those same five courses may now be covered by three adjunct faculty members.
The growing use of adjunct faculty members is becoming a national trend. In its 2010-2011 Occupational Outlook Handbook for postsecondary teachers, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast a continued reliance on part-time and short-term contract instructors as colleges and universities look for flexibility in dealing with financial issues and changing student
Adjunct faculty members become all the more vital during periods of booming growth like the one the system has seen over the past few years, Hardcastle said. In situations like that, each institution tries to expand its course offerings to keep pace with demand. But how they do it is largely left up to the schools themselves, he said.
“It's really going to vary from campus to campus,” he said.
Although adjunct faculty members help colleges and universities meet immediate demands brought on by enrollment growth, finding qualified people to fill those roles can be difficult, said Pam Fry, associate provost and associate vice president for undergraduate education at Oklahoma State University.
Attracting adjunct faculty members is particularly difficult when subject matter experts in the area are relatively scarce, she said. Although universities may conduct national searches for adjunct professors, qualified people tend to be reluctant to move to a different state or region for a temporary job, she said.
Adjunct professors can be an asset to departments, Fry said, but a revolving door of temporary faculty members may also hamper efforts to build consistency within programs.
Temporary professors are also less likely to be able to serve as mentors to their students, work on long-term program development or conduct research, she said.
For that reason, the best way to address enrollment growth is to hire full-time, tenure-track faculty members. But making those hires means a major financial commitment from the university at a time of fiscal uncertainty.
Maintaining a low student-to-faculty ratio is important for a range of reasons, Fry said. Students tend to perform better in smaller classes, she said. Although that's true across the board, she said, it seems to have a greater impact in the areas of engineering, biology and
“Beyond the concern about college class size, a lower student-to-faculty ratio allows for closer advisement and mentoring of students by faculty,” she said.
“Therefore, the lower we can keep the ratio, a faculty member has more time to work with students on an individual and small-group basis outside of class.”