There are countless factors to consider when choosing a college, but one that doesn’t get as much attention is access to tenured professors.

“Academic tenure is when a professor obtains immunity from standard career dismissal,” says Chelsea Mariah Stellmach, admissions consultant and founder of KaiZenith Admissions Consulting. Tenure is a reward for veteran professors who are experts in their fields. She adds that tenure is typically earned “later in a [professor’s] career when they have proven their abilities through published research, graduate degree(s) and approval from high-ranking members of the institution.” 

How important is it to be taught by tenured professors, and how much should you factor this into your college decisions? Below, experts weigh in. 

“If a student is committed to research, tenured professors can allow them to have the mentorship and funds to excel.” 

– Chelsea Mariah Stellmach

What are the Benefits of Instruction by Tenured Professors? 

The primary reason for tenure is to provide professors with academic freedom. Because they have job security, they can research, publish and teach a wide range of topics, including provocative material. “Tenured faculty help keep the university on track regarding quality of instruction, curriculum and developing new degree programs,” says Susan Ramlo, a tenured professor at the University of Akron and a member of the American Association of University Professors. She explains that without tenured faculty leading the charge academically, colleges could have people who aren’t experts in their fields making decisions about teaching, coursework and the curriculum.” 

If your major benefits from intense academic research, tenured professors can be invaluable. “Tenure may provide students access to top thinkers in the field,” Stellmach says. “These professors often bring in greater grants, allowing students the funds for further research … If a student is committed to research, tenured professors can allow them to have the mentorship and funds to excel.” 

Because contingent (meaning non-tenure-track) faculty may face challenges — like working multiple jobs and lacking permanent on-campus offices — it’s possible they’ll be less available to students outside the classroom. “A tenured faculty member is committed to the institution, and therefore tends to have more time and interest in providing long-term quality of teaching and programs,” Ramlo says. 

Are There Downsides to Instruction by Tenured Professors? 

Some argue that tenured faculty can be distracted by their research and may lose motivation once they gain job security. Moreover, “top researchers are not always the best teachers,” Stellmach says. “[Tenured professors] are often considered assets to the university for the research they publish, rather than their effect in the classroom.” If you’re a student who isn’t interested in research, tenured professors may not be as beneficial to you. And since tenured professors are normally occupied with research and publishing, Stellmach suggests that many “have teaching assistants run class time, so students could have less access to the professors.” 

Plus, contingent faculty who are still working out in the field — like an active journalist who teaches one media course each semester — can bring valuable fresh perspectives to the classroom. According to a study at Northwestern University, first-year students were more likely to sign up for a second course in a particular subject — and earn a higher grade — if the first course was taught by an adjunct, non-tenured, professor. 

How Can I Tell If I’ll Have Access to Tenured Professors? 

Even if you do your research and select a school with a high percentage of tenured and tenure-track professors, you may not wind up in classes taught by them. At least, not right away. “Tenured teachers tend to gravitate toward teaching upperclassmen,” says Brian Garrett, an admissions counselor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Why? Because, according to Garrett, tenured professors often teach more in-depth courses specific to a major and junior and senior years are when students are taking that level of classes. 

That said, the schools you look at will likely have varying percentages of tenured professors and varying approaches to what classes and students those professors teach. It’s worth uncovering that information before you add schools to your college list — but you’ll have to call the admissions offices of the schools you’re considering as this information typically isn’t included on college websites and promotional material. Asking for the exact information you need is the surest way to get it. 

So What’s the Bottom Line? 

How should you factor in your potential access to tenured professors? It comes down to what you’re looking for: 

  • Is research important in your major? 
  • Do you envision your future in academia? 
  • Are you hoping to work with professors who are also working professionals in your field? 
  • How big a priority is having access to your professors? 

It’s really about determining how best to serve your academic needs. Stellmach sums it up with this advice: “Rather than focusing on the six-letter buzz word, tenure, consider what your goals are and go with the school that has the professors and resources to support your unique vision.”