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Student-to-Faculty Ratios: A Bogus Statistic You Should Ignore


I’ve written elsewhere (see below) that student-to-faculty ratios are misleading statistics, and that they really don’t tell you much about the quality of teaching going on at an American college or university.
educational consultant and college counselor for Ivy League studentsIt turns out that the American Federation of Teachers agrees with me.
In a report entitled, “American Academic:  The State of the Higher Education Workforce, 1997-2007,” which was released yesterday, we learn that adjunct instructors and graduate students are teaching a very high  percentage of undergraduate courses in the United States.
What do you suppose the percentage is?  10%?  25%  50%?
On average, 73% of the people teaching college-level courses nationwide are non-tenure track faculty or graduate students–which is up from 66% a decade ago.
That’s right, folks:  even as the cost of a college education increases, the numbers of those beloved, tweedy, absent-minded, academics-for-life are dwindling–and are being replaced by part-timers, contract staff, and ever-expanding armies of graduate assistants (i.e., “indentured servants”).
At community colleges, it’s worse: four every five people teaching a course are non-tenure-track faculty.
At publicly-funded research universities (you know, those “flagship” campuses like UC Berkeley, CU-Boulder, Michigan, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill),  a whopping 41% of the instructional staff members are graduate assistants, 15.8% are part-time faculty, and 14.4% are full-time, non tenure track faculty.  So at our “flagship” research universities, on average, only 28.9% of the instructional staff are full-time, tenured or tenure-track faculty members.American Academic
On average, the private universities fare no better, with only about 29% of instructional faculty at both research and comprehensive universities either tenured or on the tenure track.  But within this group, it’s important to recognize that different universities have very different mixes of instructional faculty.  And as usual, those universities with bigger budgets and bigger endowments will generally have more full-time, tenure-track faculty. Also many smaller, liberal arts teaching colleges are likely to have a higher proportion of tenure-track faculty–even though the proportion of these professors has been declining in the past decade, too.
The one major difference of private, comprehensive colleges and universities (i.e., not the doctoral granting research universities) is that you will find very few gradate assistants teaching courses:  only 2% of instructional faculty at these institutions are graduate students.
Why is this stuff important?  Because when you hear statistics like “student-to-faculty ratios,” these ratios usually include ALL INSTRUCTIONAL STAFF, including adjuncts and graduate students.  Hidden behind this statistical ratio is the dirty, little secret that full-time, tenured professors of yore are NOT the norm on most larger universities, whether public or private.
So when the admissions office or the leader of your student tour trumpets a low student-to-faculty ratio, ask in the admissions office some more probing questions.  Take a copy of the AFT report with you to the admissions office, and ask what percentage of undergraduate courses are taught by full-time, tenure-track faculty.  Ask about adjuncts, and where they come from.  Ask about the proportion of courses taught by grad students.
And as you ask these questions, watch the face of the admissions officer. It’s going to turn white.  After a moment of panic, the officer stumble off to find the director of admission or the VP for enrollment management.  Then these marketing and sales bosses will try to reassure you that “faculty are very qualified” and “incredibly accessible” and “they are required to hold office hours.”  They will downplay the importance of these statistic in the AFT report, and they’ll probably fudge the answers (which are publicly available online and reported annually to the US government).
But I assure you, these statistics from AFT are going to give you a better idea of what the undergraduate educational experience will be like.
If you’re interested in more on my take on student-to-faculty ratios, you can get a general explanation of what these statistics mean and don’t mean, how a low student-to-faculty ratio can actually have a negative impact on class sizes, and you can watch a short video in which I ask some students on one college campus what this this statistic means to them.
And in the meantime, when college representatives tell you that the student-to-faculty ratio on this or that campus is really low, just smile knowingly and ignore them.
Mark Montgomery
Myth Busting College Counselor

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