Not a Bad Gig

November 10, 2003

Teaching at a two-year college actually has a lot of advantages over teaching at a four-year institution -- and certainly over being unemployed.

In my first column about teaching careers at community colleges, I focused mostly on the bad news: heavy teaching loads, little time for research, underprepared students, lower salaries, lack of prestige. If my frankness made some think twice about applying for openings at two-year colleges, well, good. I've sat across the table from too many candidates who had no idea what a community college was all about, and who probably wouldn't have been there if they had.

But bad news, of course, is hardly the whole story. First and foremost among the advantages is job security. I know you can have job security at a four-year institution, too -- provided you get tenure, which can be more or less difficult depending on the institution. It's also true that not all two-year colleges offer tenure, or, as some call it, a "continuing contract."

But most community colleges do offer some version of tenure -- and it's often relatively easy to get. Unlike their counterparts at four-year institutions, who may be required to publish numerous articles and perhaps even a book to be considered for tenure, community-college faculty members have no such mandate. The truth is, at most two-year colleges, you don't have to publish anything to get tenure.

You will probably be expected to participate in some sort of professional development, but that could mean something as simple as attending technology-training sessions on the campus and going to the occasional academic conference. While those are useful and worthwhile activities, they're clearly not as demanding as writing a book.

More importantly, you will certainly have to show evidence of good teaching and also, in most cases, of service to the institution, because those are the primary activities of community-college faculty members. But if you're able to do that -- if you can document that you've consistently been a good teacher, that you've served on committees and performed other important functions for the college, and that you've undergone at least some professional development -- you can probably get tenure at most two-year colleges in three to five years, seven at the outside.

Another potential advantage of the "teaching track" is that you don't have to have a terminal degree. Read the ads for faculty positions at community colleges, and you'll see that nearly all list the same minimum requirements: master's degree with 18 graduate semester hours in your particular field.

Don't assume that the term "minimum requirement" implies that those with a master's degree don't stand a chance. Two-year colleges actually hire lots of people with "just a master's" -- two-thirds or more of the faculty at many two-year institutions hold only a master's. True, some of those faculty members are A.B.D., and many others have hours beyond the master's. Quite a few go on to earn additional graduate hours -- in many cases, at the college's expense -- and some even complete their terminal degrees. But they were hired with "just a master's."

Does that mean Ph.D.'s need not apply? Certainly not. In fact, in recent years, the trend at community colleges has been to hire more Ph.D.'s, partly because the market is glutted with them and partly, perhaps, because word has gotten out that a community college can be a pretty nice place to work. My college, this past year, hired 16 new tenure-track faculty members, six of whom hold terminal degrees. Ten years ago, only two or three of the new hires would have had them.

That said, I don't believe that a terminal degree will necessarily give you an advantage in applying or interviewing. The faculty search committees I've served on -- at least a dozen in the past decade -- were looking for the best teachers we could find. Sometimes they were people with Ph.D.'s, sometimes not. Our hiring committees tend to be "degree blind," especially in the final stages of the search process.

Another advantage has to do with quality-of-life issues. In addition to less stress, since faculty members probably won't perish if they don't publish, community-college teaching offers other lifestyle benefits, some quite tangible.

It's true that, on average, faculty salaries at two-year colleges tend to be lower than those at four-year institutions -- in some cases, much lower. On the other hand, two-year colleges are often located in areas where the cost of living is significantly lower than the national (or at least the state) average. Many community-college professors are able to live quite comfortably, despite the lower salaries.

In addition, most state systems offer excellent insurance coverage, including health, dental, vision, and life, along with a generous retirement plan. Many also allow faculty members to take graduate courses within the state system at no cost, and some even provide tuition benefits for their spouses and children.

Prestige? That -- what there is of it -- is part of the package, too. Over the years, I've known many colleagues who were highly regarded in their local communities as experts. A friend of mine, a history professor, published a popular history of the area where he lives. A political-science professor I know is frequently quoted in the local news media. Others sponsor book clubs, give lectures to community art and literary groups, or write columns for the newspaper.

Ultimately, though, the best thing about teaching at a two-year school is just that: teaching. That's our primary mission, and we know it. We embrace it. Our students know it, too, and they expect us to be good at it.

By and large, we are very good at it -- especially given the fact that so many of our students are less than ready for college when they arrive. If there's anything more rewarding in this profession than introducing a bright yet poorly prepared (and perhaps unmotivated) student to the joy of learning, perhaps for the first time, I haven't encountered it. All teachers get to experience that occasionally. Community-college teachers do it every day.

So, yes, my colleagues at four-year institutions are publishing a lot more than I am. Some of them are even becoming famous, or at least well known in their fields. Their paychecks certainly have bigger numbers before the decimal point.

But I seriously doubt that their careers -- or their lives, for that matter -- are any more fulfilling than mine.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and chairman of the humanities department at the Lawrenceville campus of Georgia Perimeter College.