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.”