By and large, my conclusion is that these statistics are not all that helpful in uncovering the quality of the educational experience for a prospective undergraduate.
So what to do? How can we compare and contrast the educational services offered by different institutions? How can we get beyond these simplistic numbers?
Well, one place to start is the set of questions formulated by Loren Pope in his book, Colleges that Change Lives. I have already posted those here. The point is to ask more substantive questions about how courses are taught, and not to focus solely upon the size of the class.
But there are other questions that prospective students and their parents might ask in order to understand and predict what their experience might be like if they matriculated to a particular college or university.
- What is the “course load” for faculty members? How many undergraduate courses is each faculty member expected to teach every year? Is this number the same for all departments, or does it vary by discipline?
- What percentage of courses is taught by adjunct or part-time faculty? Is this percentage the same across departments, or do some departments rely on part-timers more than others?
- What percentage of courses has a waiting list? How does the college (or the individual department) determine who gets off the waiting list and when?
- How many campus lecture halls seat 100 students? 50 students? 500 students? How many seminar rooms are there? What is the ratio of lecture halls to seminar rooms?
- How small must a class be before it is canceled by the administration?
- What is the most popular course on campus (or in your department)? Is enrollment in this course capped? Who gets in, and who doesn’t?
As you ask these questions, you should not permit admissions people to give vague answers. They will hem and haw. They will will be imprecise.
But these figures do exist on campus, and they exist in the office of institutional research. The administrators in this office crunch the numbers. They have the facts. If you really want to know this information, you need to ask to be put in touch with someone in institutional research who can provide this information to you.
Still, you must not focus solely on the statistics. Every educational institution has administrative problems like the ones cited at Dartmouth in my previous post. You will never be able to guarantee that your son or daughter will not be shut out of a class. You will not be able to ensure that every course he or she takes is a gem.
But if you dig deeply enough, you may be able to figure out how forthcoming and honest the faculty and administration is about these difficulties, and you will learn how they are working to solve them.