Impact of Tenure-Track Faculty on Student Learning

Do freshman learn more with primarily teaching-focused or research-focused faculty?


A new IPR working paper examines how introductory classes with tenure-track versus nontenure-track faculty affected the performance of Northwestern freshman in later classes.

Tenure in American higher education is on the wane. In the mid-1970s, more than 50 percent of faculty held tenure, dropping to 30 percent by 2009. A new working paper by IPR education economists David Figlio and Morton Schapiro with consultant and recent alumnus Kevin Soter compares learning outcomes for undergraduates in classes with tenure-track and nontenure-track faculty.

Previous studies have suggested that part-time instructors do not serve students’ needs as well as full-time ones, but they do not address whether undergraduate students learn more from faculty more active in research than faculty who do more teaching, Figlio explained at an October 7 IPR colloquium.

“To be clear, this is not a paper about tenure,” said Figlio, who is also director of IPR. And the paper’s applicability has limits, as it uses data for more than 15,000 freshmen on only their first year of classwork at Northwestern, not more advanced classes. “You can likely generalize these results to highly selective schools with labor practices similar to Northwestern, but probably not to others,” he said.

The three co-authors looked at whether freshmen entering Northwestern between 2001 and 2008 were more likely to take a second course in a subject where they had a nontenure-track rather than a tenure-track instructor for the introductory course, as well as whether their performance was better in the subsequent course in the same subject. The advantage of using freshmen is that, like many outside of academia, they are not likely to realize there is an explicit distinction between teaching-focused lecturers and research-focused, tenure-line professors.  

From left: Morton Schapiro, Kevin Soter, and David Figlio discuss
their paper following the IPR presentation.

“The paper says nontenure-track faculty members at Northwestern tend to induce freshmen to do two things,” said Soter, whose senior thesis inspired the study. “One is to take more classes in their subjects, by about 7 to 10 percent, and the other is to have more success in that following course by about .06 grade points,” a meaningful increase given the observed grade distribution.

Controlling for fixed effects for students as well as the next class taken, the researchers looked at many other variables, such as subjects taken, grading, and teaching experience, but “nothing we did statistically altered our results,” Figlio said. Interestingly, the beneficial learning effects of adjunct faculty were bigger for those Northwestern students who were less academically prepared and who tended to take more difficult classes.

Schapiro, who co-authored a well-cited paper on the efficiency gains that result from tenure, indicated that though the numbers of nontenure-track faculty at private research universities grew from 18 percent of all full-time faculty in 1995 to 46 percent by 2007, no one had yet studied this very important question.

“This movement is an amazing change, and that’s what caught our interest in it,” Schapiro said.

The paper, which generated a wave of media coverage, also called into question whether the rise of hiring full-time designated teachers in U.S. higher education is “cause for alarm.” Rather, the three researchers suggest that such a trend might offer colleges and universities a way to be great institutions of research and of undergraduate learning at the same time.

David Figlio is Orrington Lunt Professor of Education & Social Policy and of Economics and IPR director and fellow. Morton Schapiro is Northwestern University president, professor, and an IPR fellow. Kevin Soter (WCAS ’12) is a consultant with The Greatest Good.