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Student-to-Faculty Ratio and Small Class Sizes: Unintended (Negative) Consequences

Colleges cite their student-to-faculty ratios and average class size as indicators of the intimacy and quality of the educational experience they offer to students. Rankings systems, such as those employed by US News & World Report and Newsweek, include these statistics among their variables. I’ve been writing about these statistics and what they mean (see these links for more about ratios and class sizes). And I mentioned in a video blog post that these statistics have unintended consequences.

So what are the unintended consequences?

The first one is that students can get shut out of courses that they really want to take.

Why? Because administrators want to ensure that they have a low average class size, they limit enrollment in some courses. Which courses are the ones requiring a cap? Why, the popular courses offered by the best or most popular professors are often in high demand. But contrary to the laws of economics, administrators will choke off supply–for the sake of keeping the average class size small.

Students flock to register for popular courses. But administrators do not want these popular courses to become the odious “large lecture courses” eschewed by rankings systems, parents, and college counselors. So they cap the course, and dozens–sometimes hundreds–of students can be denied access to these courses. One result is that the administration then has to devise a fair system of allocating these scarce resources to the students who “deserve” them most. It may be that seniors get preference. Or majors. Or some other system. This problem is compounded at small colleges that have fewer faculty and more limited teaching resources. It is much more difficult for small colleges to add sections and courses, because of the laws of economies of scale: no scale, no economies.

The second unintended consequence is the proliferation of adjunct instructors.

Keeping in mind that keeping class sizes low means that a university needs more instructors to teach more courses, a college administration can blow its budget if it’s not careful. The most expensive instructors are the ones who work full-time, have been around for ages (they have lots of experience), and draw expensive benefits (like health care and retirement plans). The cost of adding a new tenure track professor can easily add $75,000 to $150,000 onto the budget. However, if we ask an adjunct to teach a course or two, an administrator can pay them as little as $1500 to $3000 per course (!), and the budget is not saddled with those pesky benefits. So at some colleges, perhaps 25-30% of all courses are taught by adjuncts.

This is not necessarily horrible; for some adjuncts can be much better teachers than some of the tenured professors. They may teach for the love of teaching, not because it’s a necessary evil in order to fuel their research habits. However, adjuncts are rarely considered wholly a part of the college community. They rarely have their own offices, they are harder for students to reach, and are not generally the professors that invite their students over to their houses for dinner (a modest dinner for 15 hungry students could take a huge bite out of that $1500 paycheck!).

So, while student-to-faculty ratios are important, and while people like me like to guide students toward colleges where the average class size is small, there is no escaping the fact that there is no free lunch. Low ratios and small classes beget their own set of administrative problems that can have a very negative impact on a student’s educational experience.

As a parent or prospective student, then, what questions should you really be asking when you investigate colleges?

In addition to asking about student-to-faculty ratios and the average class size, try these as follow-on questions:

Regarding student-to-faculty ratios: What percentage of students are locked out of courses they want to take? What is the system for allocating slots in popular courses? Is this problem greater in some majors more than others? Which are most affected?

Regarding small class sizes: What percentage of courses are taught by part-time faculty or adjunct professors? What is the ratio of tenure-track faculty to adjuncts? Which departments have the highest percentage of adjuncts?

Choosing a college is a tricky business. While the internet has provided us with access to enormous amounts of information, we may still be unaware of how to interpret all this information.

This is why so many families are turning to people like me to guide them through the college selection process. There is no substitute for expertise. And if you are going to spend $250,000 on a college education, shouldn’t you be asking the right questions to help you spend your money wisely?

Mark Montgomery
College Counselor

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