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Class Size and Student-to-Faculty Ratios: What the Statistics Don't Tell You

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When a client asked me the other day about the importance of student-to-faculty ratios, I got to thinking about other supposed indicators of educational quality.

The other oft-cited statistic when visiting an admissions office is “average class size.” As with student-to-faculty ratios, the size of the classes at a college is assumed to reflect the quality and the intimacy of the educational experience. Small classes–so the assumption goes–are interactive and provide ample opportunity for interaction between students and faculty. The pedagogy of these classes is more a facilitated discussion than a lecture.
This assumption is generally true: small classes are more interactive. Yet I could cite numerous examples of professors I have known who stand and deliver lectures from prepared notes to a class of seven students. Just because a class is small doesn’t mean it’s any good.
The use of the “average class size” can be very misleading, however, and masks some more important facts about the quality of education delivered by a college or university.
Consider how the following scenarios have an impact on how “average class size” is calculated.
• Some of the smallest classes are taught by the least effective, least popular professors. In a world of university tenure, bad professors cannot be chased out. So they end up teaching ever smaller numbers of students, while the more effective, popular instructors see their class sizes swell.
• Some of the smallest classes are in obscure subjects. Some of these are new courses professors are trying out for the first time. They can be experimental. And few students are willing to take risks of this sort (credits are too expensive, too dear to take such risks).
• Class sizes in some departments are much smaller than in other departments. Courses for popular majors such as history, economics, and biology may be large, while equally good courses in anthropology and art history may be tiny. Here quality of the individual course is not the issue–it’s the popularity of the major that may affect class size.
• Professors generally do not like teaching huge courses–not because they hate lecturing–but because they hate grading so many tests and term papers. So they ask administrators to cap enrollments, insisting that “small classes are better” (when, in fact, they are simply concerned about their own work load).
• Professors and administrators cap enrollments in popular courses in order to keep the average class size small. Even the most popular courses at small, liberal arts colleges are not allowed to grow large–because those colleges are protecting the ratio. In a competitive environment that values small class sizes over large ones, institutions of higher education are loath to allow classes to grow too large. So from an administrator’s point of view, the question is not so much access to great courses or the quality of the individual course (some large lecture classes in the hands of an outstanding professor can be awesome). An administrator’s job is to keep “average class size” as low as possible.
This final point leads to some very troublesome effects on college campuses. An article in the March/April issue of alumni magazine of my alma mater, Dartmouth College, points out that the real, untold story is how the mania to protect the “average class size” statistic is shutting students out of popular courses. The article makes the point this way:

In [the department of] economics, with 453 students registered as majors, minors, or modified majors, students get closed out of as many of 20 percent of their course choices, a rate that far exceeds the rate of closeouts campus wide, as estimated by [Dean of the Faculty Carol] Holt.

To further elaborate the point, a “small class” in the economics department at Dartmouth is 30 students: the department would likely cancel a class with such “low” enrollment. While in the department of anthropology, a “small” class might be 5 or 6 (in my department at the University of Denver, a course with fewer than 7 students was considered “uneconomic” and therefore cancelled).275px-dartmouth_college_baker_building.jpg
(Note to future economics majors: if you really want to small classes, go to a college where economics is NOT a popular major.)
Believe me, this is not the sort of information you will hear from an admissions counselor. They will sing out their statistics on student-to-faculty ratios (8-to-1 at Dartmouth) and “average class size” is probably around 15 or so.
But the statistics, beautiful though they are, do not tell you the whole story. In fact, they can be grossly misleading. And they do not necessarily bear any relationship to the quality of the education being delivered.
As an alumnus, of course, I would tell you that the quality of the education at Dartmouth is more a function of the quality of the faculty and the quality of the student body. Dartmouth can afford to be more discriminating in its offers of tenure, it offers higher salaries to faculty, and the student body is one any high-quality faculty member would love to teach. And only teachers who love to teach undergraduates would be motivated to apply for a job at Dartmouth–for there are virtually no graduate students.
In the same breath, however, I would criticize the quality of a Harvard undergraduate education, where the student-to-faculty ratio is an ultra-low 6-to-1, but average class sizes are generally much larger, and graduate teaching assistants perform the overwhelming majority of grading and lead almost all the class discussions. To be graduate student at Harvard is to be on top of the heap; to be an undergraduate is fun an exciting, but the teaching is just not as good (see my post about a Harvard alumnus here).
In my next post, I’ll give you some ideas of questions you can ask admissions officers, faculty, and other administrators at colleges that will help you get a better sense of an institution’s priorities when it comes to teaching and learning.
Mark Montgomery
Great College Advice from an
Independent College Counselor

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