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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Published by Mark Montgomery

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

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  1. I generally see what you’re saying here. But are you saying that a low faculty-to-student ratio is only a positive thing if all those faculty are “beloved, tweedy, absent-minded, academics-for-life”? Are you saying that the non-tenure-track faculty are not capable of providing students with a quality education, or that the academics-for-life are always the more desirable teachers?

    I would take issue with the assertion that “quality teaching” always (or even often) comes from the tweedy academics, regardless of how beloved they are – most tenured university professors have training only in their subject matter, and not in education. I would also suggest that part-time faculty and grad students, who often have a lot more to prove and are less likely to be burnt out, can make for an excellent teaching staff.

  2. Hello, Siobhan. Thanks for the comment.

    I agree that “quality teaching” is not a function of the instructor’s degree or contract status. You are absolutely right that many adjuncts and teaching assistants are excellent instructors–and sometimes better than tenure-track faculty.

    What bothers me is that colleges and and universities (and US News and World Report) use student-to-faculty ratios as a proxy for teaching quality. We both agree that they are not. And my emphasis in this particular post was on the contract status of the instructors. If you really want to get me going, I could happily make the argument that tenure is a medieval institution that ought to be abolished. But that’s for another post at another time.

    Despite the fact that adjuncts, contract faculty, and grad students may be good instructors, students choosing universities and colleges should be aware that many of these folks do not have offices on campus. They often travel long distances to teach, and then disappear. They generally are poorly paid and receive no benefits. Their status on campus often means that they are much less available to students than the tenured faculty–even when they want to be.

    The student-to-faculty ratio is not, we agree, a measure of the quality of the educational experience at a college or university. It’s a ratio that’s easy to calculate, but is virtually meaningless.

    How, then, should we measure teaching quality? How can we know, as consumers, whether the faculty at this university is better (or worse) than the faculty at this other university? THAT is a huge can of worms, and we enter a realm that is fraught with controversy. However, I will point to efforts within the K-12 education community to define what good teaching is, and to measure it. Higher education will resist these efforts. But isn’t this the more useful exercise, despite the controversy?

    Whatever the fate of efforts to measure educational quality in higher education, one thing is sure: student-to-faculty ratios mislead. We need to look elsewhere if we want to to measure teaching quality and learning outcomes.

    Again, thanks for fueling the conversation!

  3. To simplify, the ratio is a comparison of the number of students for every faculty member on the campus. This is the student-to-faculty ratio. Hope this helps.

  4. Question: not looking at it from parents perspective, suppose someone quotes an “avg. class size” of 18? Regardless of who’s in the front of the class, if I walk around campus and count people in classrooms at various times, would we find that avg. near 18?

    So are these counts skewed by considering part time vs tenure track, or might a school manipulate counts to make a low avg class size appear when in fact the majority of class sizes is 30 or greater? Thanks in advance.

  5. Hi, Vinny.

    You would think that the “average class size” would mean that you will find plenty of classes with about 18 students in them. But counts can, indeed, be skewed. So talk about things like “what percentage of classes have more than 50 students?” and “what percentage of classes have fewer than 10?”. Statistics are slippery numbers games. You need to get as close to the raw data as you can in order to see what is behind those averages.

    Hope that’s helpful.

  6. It’s important to ask how they aggregate their figures for teachers employed too. In theory, something like the following could happen, and I’m wondering if you know whether it does or not?

    Let’s say teacher A (a grad student) teaches thirty students in one term, teacher B teaches the same students the next term, and teacher C in a third term. From the perspective of the students, that’s effectively a 1/30 staff/student ratio for those classes, and should count as 1 teacher for the purpose of the calculation. However, if all three teachers remain entered in the payroll system for the year, then all three could be used in the calculation, and the university could present those classes as having a 1/10 staff/student ratio.

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