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Student-to-Faculty Ratios: What Do These Statistics Mean?

The other day I received this question from a client:

Hi, Mark. I’ve been reading college profiles, and nearly all of them cite student-to-faculty ratios, all of which fall in to a relatively narrow range of perhaps 12:1 to 20:1. How important is this statistic in choosing a college?

My short answer: not very.

The student-to-faculty ratio is supposed to reflect the intimacy of the educational experience. One would assume that the lower the ratio, the more contact a student will have with faculty members. One might also assume that institutions with lower ratios would have smaller class sizes, on average, than one with a higher ratio.

Let’s look first at the view from 30,000 feet: what is the national student-to-faculty ratio. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics’ Digest of Educational Statistics for 2007, there were 18 million college students and 1.3 million college faculty. A quick calculation tells us that nationwide, there are 13.8 students for every faculty member in America.

However, there are are only about 700,000 full-time faculty members in higher education, and about 600,000 part-time faculty, or adjuncts. So if we recalculate the ratio, there are 25.7 students per full-time faculty member.

So how do universities report their student-t0-faculty ratios? Because a low ratio is associated with higher quality education, a college administrator has an incentive to keep this ratio as low as possible. Every major publication and ranking system (e.g., US News, the Princeton Review, the Fiske Guide) slavishly reports these figures and uses them to compare one college against another.

So look behind the ratios!

  • Does this figure include part-time faculty who may be brought in to teach a single course? If so, keep in mind that students have much less access to adjunct faculty (who rarely have their own office or even a place to hang their coats).
  • Does this figure include faculty who teach only graduate courses–or may teach predominantly graduate students? If so, the ratio exaggerates students’ access to some of the most senior faculty–many of whom simply do not like teaching undergraduates.
  • Does this figure include research faculty, who generally do not teach undergraduate courses at all, but may simply guide doctoral candidates or teach in a graduate professional school? If so, the ratio may be inflated.

When I was a college administrator, my colleagues and I always agonized about how to report our student-to-faculty ratios. The recipient of this information usually colored our responses. If we were reporting to the office of institutional research (which is required to report information to the federal government in standardized formats), we were fairly careful in giving a more nuanced, detailed accounting.

But if the admissions office was asking for figures, we’d drum up every faculty member we could in order to report a low student-to-faculty ratio.

So take these ratios with a grain of salt. As my prospective client noticed, the range of ratios does not vary all that much from one institution to another. And the ratio may not tell you all that much about the classroom experience. You will want to ask other questions that may tell you more about the intimacy of the educational experience.

For more on whether student-to-faculty ratios tell us much about a the quality of a college, click here.

Mark Montgomery
Independent College Counselor

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