Project PhD: More Colleges Snagging Professors With Doctorates With Promise of Lighter Teaching Loads, Fewer Research Requirements and Higher Job Satisfaction

Community College Week
January 9, 2000
by Kimberly Garcia

AUSTIN, Texas -- When Dr. Marcus McGuff finished his Ph.D in music at the University of Michigan in 1992, he sought a full-time job teaching flute at a university. When he couldn't find one, he returned here to his hometown. He landed a gig teaching math part-time at Austin Community College. And then a funny thing happened: Despite his long-held dream of being a university professor, getting tenure and teaching music, he discovered there were all kinds of advantages to working at a two-year school.

"One of the big things that keeps me at a community college is that you meet all sorts of people who take their courses very seriously," McGuff says. "It is becoming more and more at large universities that you have to do a lot of research and the tenure race is on. You only get to teach if you draw the short straw. Teaching is what draws a lot of us to community colleges."

Now a full-time math instructor at Austin, McGuff says his heart is with community colleges. And while there aren't many hard numbers to back it up, some higher education experts predict that McGuff is just one of many doctorate-toting faculty members who are beginning to snub big research universities -- along with big research university salaries -- for life at a two-year campus.

Several factors are driving the trend, higher education experts say, such as a sluggish academic job market and nationwide teaching programs created in the past five years to expand employment opportunities for Ph.Ds after graduation. But what also compels some Ph.Ds to accept jobs at community colleges are opportunities to teach -- rather than conduct research or publish -- and the feeling that they can make a bigger impact at two-year institutions, Ph.Ds say. And two-year administrators, eager to bolster their colleges' reputation, are beginning to sweeten the pot to entice a new breed of community college professors.

The Survey Says

While difficult to document, administrators at scores of colleges across the country say that they're employing an increasing number of Ph.Ds. For instance, between the 1994-95 and 1999-2000 academic years, the percentage of Ph.Ds among full-time faculty here at Austin jumped from 21 percent to 28.5 percent.

The same is happening elsewhere. At Raritan Valley Community College, for example, that figure rose a whopping 14.5 percent -- from 25.5 percent to 40 percent, administrators at the Somerville, N.J., college report.

The numbers aren't always so startling. At Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill., college officials say the number of faculty members holding doctoral degrees has increased only slightly, from 21.7 percent to 23.4 percent.

National surveys so far have failed to document the trend. But national higher education experts contend that the increases, while very real now, may not show up for several years in surveys due to reporting time lag.

"This is recent that this talk is happening of Ph.Ds increasing at community colleges," says Rick Cherwitz, director of the professional development program for graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin. "It's futuristic."

Two somewhat outdated surveys are available on the number of Ph.Ds teaching at community colleges. The U.S. Department of Education's National Study of Postsecondary Faculty suggests the number of teachers with doctorates at community colleges actually decreased slightly over five years, says Christopher Shults, a research assistant for the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C.

The survey questions nearly 1,000 two-year and four-year higher education institutions nationwide about doctorate graduates. The survey revealed the percentage of doctorates at two-year public institutions fell from 12.9 percent in 1987 to 12.7 percent in 1992. A more recent survey is underway now, Shults says.

Another survey reflects a slight increase in the number of Ph.Ds teaching at community colleges over seven years, says Lance Selfa, a research analyst for the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago in Ill. The center has been administering an annual Survey of Earned Doctorates for the last three years. Officials at the center work with graduate schools to determine employment plans for nearly 42,000 Ph.D graduates nationwide, Selfa says.

The survey showed the number of Ph.Ds who planned to work at community colleges increased from 3 percent in 1990 to 3.4 percent in 1997. The number climbed as high as 3.7 percent in 1996, Selfa says.

Luring Them In

Despite that lukewarm testament from such surveys, strong anecdotal evidence points toward much more widespread increases in the number of instructors and professors with Ph.Ds who teach at community colleges.

McGuff says he never aspired to work at a community college. His dream, even now, is to make a living playing the flute. And he continues playing in chamber and other music groups, specializing in 17th and 18th century songs using replicas of instruments that flutists used then. But early on in his studies, a professor had recommended he study math in case he couldn't earn a living from his music education.

McGuff says he is not sure he will stay with Austin Community College forever. He doesn't enjoy grading papers or administrative work, but he thrives on helping students learn. "In a perfect world I would play or teach flute for a living. But I really do enjoy teaching math," McGuff says. "I like interacting with people and helping them do math. A lot of people freak out about math. I like to show them they can do it."

McGuff teaches four classes a semester, which takes about two class periods per day, five days a week. If he worked at a research university, he contends, he would spend more time on publishing and research than on teaching and grading. He also would make more money.

The average salary for an assistant professor with a Ph.D here at Austin Community College is $46,400, nearly $7,000 less than the average $53,000 salary at the University of Texas in Austin. But two-year faculty with doctorates still usually bring home more than those without.

Administrators, who say Ph.Ds improve the quality of courses, say they are often willing to cough up a few extra bucks. They favor hiring Ph.D.s as long as they show a preference and skill for teaching even if it means paying a higher salary.

"Ph.D.s are more costly to hire, but they also offer a benefit," says Dr. Elva Concha Allie, executive vice president for instructional affairs at Austin Community College. "It's very nice to have such well-educated people working with our students. Clearly, our students benefit from their expertise. There's a cost for that benefit."

At Raritan Valley, administrators offer tuition reimbursement for doctoral work, a semester of sabbatical to work on dissertations, research grants and fellowships to study at Princeton University, says dean of instruction Dr. Charlotte Ravitz.

"I do whatever it takes to woo Ph.Ds," Ravitz says. "The fact that we have as many Ph.Ds bolsters the reputation of our college. We have as many Ph.Ds as many of the [four-year] institutions in our state."

Indeed, Dr. Joyce Tigner was among the Ph.Ds Ravitz won over. Tigner took a round about route to becoming an assistant professor of philosophy at Raritan Valley. After completing a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1995 at Rutgers State University in N.J., Tigner was a contractor for two years in a different business. Then, she took a one-year appointment at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and afterward, came close to accepting a job at another four-year institution.

Instead, Ravitz lured Tigner to become an assistant professor of philosophy in the fall of 1998. Tigner couldn't pass up the opportunity to establish an ethics center in partnership with the local business community, to coordinate a national conference on integrating ethics into technical education and to create a gender studies program

"I think I would've preferred a four-year college, but one of the things that was attractive at Raritan is there were a lot of opportunities to do other things that I wouldn't have been able to do at a four-year institution," Tigner says. "I never would've had the opportunity to organize a national conference until I was tenured at a four-year institution."

Still, Tigner misses the opportunity to write that four-year institutions offer. She is not sure whether or not she'll teach her entire career at a community college. She feels like she is still learning about community college students, who she says have a greater diversity of needs than their counterparts at four-year universities.

The Training Programs

Also giving Ph.Ds insights into the benefits of working at community colleges are a crop of teacher training programs popping up across the country. The most widespread teaching training program for Ph.Ds stems from the Preparing Future Faculty Program, which started in 1993. The program is a national network of research universities and colleges that provides doctorate students with opportunities to explore the full range of employment opportunities, says Rick Weibl, the program's director in Washington, D.C.

Nearly 220 colleges and universities cooperate in the program through 23 clusters. The University of Texas was among the first five institutions to participate in the program. It offers 13 cross-disciplinary classes, a series of workshops and teaching internships to maximize the professional development of graduate students. Some of the interns teach a semester at Austin Community College, Cherwitz says.

The University of Arkansas started a similar program last fall through Fulbright College. The Community College Teaching Program offers teaching internships at community colleges and two classes on the differences between teaching in a two-year or four-year institution, says Karen Stauffacher, an assistant dean at Fulbright College.

The internships have helped boost the number of Ph.Ds teaching at Austin and at Oakton community colleges. Internships make doctorate candidates aware of the benefits of teaching at community colleges, such as union representation, impressive facilities, support services and technical equipment, Oakton's president Dr. Margaret Lee says.

"I would like to think our program has a positive influence on increasing the number of Ph.D.s at community colleges," Weibl says. "I can tell you of doctorates who didn't think they'd end up at community colleges but found out they liked the community college mission because they were exposed to a community college through our program."

Catching the Bug

Many of those with doctorates say they caught the community college bug while teaching part-time at a two-year school and finishing their doctoral work. Count administrators Ravitz, Lee and Concha among them, as well as Dr. Judy Flakef Nwachie, a government teacher at Austin.

Nwachie, was among the first graduates of Austin Community College when she completed an associate's degree in 1977, just three years after the college opened. She worked full time throughout her entire higher education career until she completed her Ph.D in education administration from the University of Texas in Austin in 1993. She held state jobs in the state Legislature and was among the first employment discrimination investigators. She also was an adjunct Austin Community College professor until she became full time nearly 16 years ago.

Nwachie says she can't imagine teaching elsewhere. She feels she can relate to her students better than university students. "I wanted to serve the students who were similar to me, working full-time, older, managing families," Nwachie says. "I am my students. I have sat in the chairs some of them sit in. I know what it is like to rush from work to get to a class at night. I know what it feels like to be one of the first college graduates in a family. "I know what it's like to have teachers who care about you and will spend extra time with you because I myself needed extra tutoring. I love this college and I want to make a positive contribution to it."