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USACollegeChat Podcast

Jul 28, 2016

Four assignments down and several yet to go in this summer college search process that we hope you are undertaking with us. We hope that your teenager and you are learning a lot about colleges in general and a lot about the colleges that are on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. We hope that your teenager’s list is still long--because there is plenty of time to shorten it after September comes. 

To recap, in your first four assignments, you have expanded your teenager’s long summer list of college options--for now, anyway. You have checked out four key admission standards for the colleges on that list--namely, average high school GPA, high school class rank, SAT or ACT scores of admitted and/or enrolled freshmen, and both required and recommended courses to be completed in high school. You have also looked at each college’s undergraduate enrollment, broken down by part-time vs. full-time study, gender, race/ethnicity, and place of residence. That’s a lot of information, but we believe we can add a couple more pieces of data that might affect what your teenager and you think about a college.

As we have said before, get your teenager to do this research assignment. But if you want to help, feel free to do so.

1. Your Assignment #5

Download the Assignment #5 Worksheet

In this episode, we will look further into the size of each of the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options--that is, size in terms of enrollment, not in terms of physical campus area. We want to examine two specific aspects of size--things that you might not think about right off the bat.

You will recall in Assignment #1, you had to fill in the undergraduate enrollment of each college on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. Then, in Assignment #4, you looked at that enrollment by the characteristics of the students themselves. Today, we want to look at how the enrollment is distributed into the actual classrooms and seminar rooms and labs that students sit in on campus and how it might affect your teenager’s relationships with his or her professors.

2. Student-to-Faculty Ratio

Again, let me recommend that your teenager look to College Navigator, the impressive online search tool provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, for finding out this first statistic we are going to talk about. Let me say that sometimes you can also find this statistic on a college’s own website, often on the “Quick Facts” or “At a Glance” or similar page. During our nationwide virtual college tour (Episodes 27 through 53) here at USACollegeChat, I spent loads of time looking for this statistic and not finding it on individual college websites--only to discover now that it was right there at College Navigator all along. This is a statistic that we mentioned very often during our virtual tour, and we know that it is one that colleges themselves are often very proud of. It is student-to-faculty ratio--in other words, how many students are there for each faculty member.

So, what is the big deal about student-to-faculty ratio? It is this: Most people believe that a student’s education is improved if he or she has more access to faculty members in smaller classes (more about that in a minute), during less crowded office hours, and in more chances to meet up outside of class and office hours to discuss things or take part in activities of some sort together or develop a professional relationship or mentorship of some kind, and so on. Most people believe that faculty members can and will give each student enough time and attention if they are not spread too thin over too many students. Hence, a student-to-faculty ratio should be as low as possible, ideally in single digits or low double digits, like 10-to-1.

Let me be the first to say that I actually don’t know if this is true, though it certainly seems to be logical. I also don’t know how valuable a low student-to-faculty ratio is for students who are not particularly looking for this kind of personal relationship with faculty members. I went to Cornell University, a large Ivy League university, where I did not have a close relationship with virtually any of my professors. The only one I probably ever spoke to outside of a formal class setting was the great historian Michael Kammen, who autographed a copy of his Pulitzer Prize winner for me and who realized, when he thought about my name, that he read my sports articles with my byline in The Cornell Daily Sun. I admired many of my professors, including Professor Kammen, but I really didn’t feel the need for more attention from any of them.

So, I am the perfect candidate for a college with an unimpressive student-to-faculty ratio. However, if your teenager would benefit from a closer, perhaps more nurturing connection to his or her professors, then checking out the student-to-faculty ratio makes sense for your family. Or, if you would feel better knowing that there is a greater chance that a faculty member knows and is looking out for your teenager, then looking for that low student-to-faculty ratio is important.

Generally speaking, student-to-faculty ratios are lower at small private colleges than at large public universities, which is not surprising. Small private colleges advertise the college culture that comes with a low ratio as one of the reasons to choose a small private college instead of a large public university. For example, you have Amherst College at 8-to-1, Vassar College at 8-to-1, Reed College at 9-to1, Hamilton College at 9-to1, Colorado College at 10-to-1, and so on. And, if I read you a list of good public flagship universities, those ratios might be more like 16- or 17- or 18-to-1. 

When you see a very selective private university with a student-to-faculty ratio that makes it look more like a small private college, you have to be impressed--like Rice University’s 6-to-1 or Duke University’s 7-to-1. Though perhaps the most interesting is California Institute of Technology (commonly known as Caltech), with a student-to-faculty ratio of 3:1--so low a ratio that it is virtually unbelievable. A low ratio might make that private university a more attractive choice for your teenager and you--and probably a more expensive choice. But that’s your call.

I do want to add that I suspect that these ratios are not calculated exactly the same way from college to college, regardless of what anyone claims. I also imagine that the ratio is a lot harder to calculate for a large university with, say, 12 schools and colleges in it, which likely have different student-to-faculty ratios; in that case, one student-to-faculty ratio doesn’t even make much sense. In fairness to College Navigator, colleges do get directions for completing the standard data collection forms. And, if you were wondering, student-to-faculty ratio is supposed to exclude both students and faculty in what we would think of as professional programs that are solely for graduate students--like medicine, law, social work, or public health. So, NCES is trying to make the ratios sensible and comparable from college to college.

The bottom line is this: I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on the difference between a student-to-faculty ratio of 9-to-1 and 10-to-1 or even 11-to-1. Rather consider that there might, however, be a difference in faculty accessibility between a college with a student-to-faculty ratio of 9-to-1 and one with a ratio of 18-to-1.

Have your teenager do the necessary college searches and write down the student-to-faculty ratio on the Assignment #5 worksheet. Get it from College Navigator; or, if you are curious, take a look at a college’s own website to see what the college is advertising.

3. Class Size

Watch our Facebook Live video on class size for more perspectives.

Class size is exactly what you think it is--how many students are in the classroom when your teenager is trying to learn calculus. Some colleges are very proud of their small class sizes, and some others that think they don’t have that much to be proud of in this regard do the best they can to make a good case for their own class sizes. This information is not on College Navigator (at least not that I could find). But you can find this information on many, many college websites, though you might have to look around a bit.

For example, here is what you will read under “Quick Facts” on St. John’s College’s website: “Seminars have between 17 [and] 19 students, led by two faculty members. Tutorials (mathematics, language, and music) and laboratory sessions have 12 to 16 students, led by one faculty member.” That is believable, given that St. John’s (with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe) is a super-small and super-intriguing college (with about 450 to 475 students on each campus). Those classes are a lot smaller than many, many classes would be at a large university.

On the website of the College of William & Mary (a prestigious public college of about 6,300 undergraduates and 2,200 graduate students in Virginia), you can find this statement under “W&M At a Glance”: “84 percent of courses have fewer than 40 students.” Clearly, William & Mary thinks that is worth advertising, though it is quite different from what St. John’s advertises.

Or, on other websites, you can look for the “common data set” and check out a display of class section sizes under “I. Instructional Faculty and Class Size” (by the way, you will also find student-to-faculty ratios here). You can see how many class sections have 2-9 students, 10-19 students, 20-29 students, 30-39 students, 40-49 students, 50-59 students, and all the way to 100+ students. There are also subsections displayed--that is, the supplementary tutorials and labs, for example.

But again, class size is a matter of personal choice. Frankly, I preferred large classes--huge lectures by a brilliant professor. But many students prefer small seminars where students get to express their own opinions and talk back and forth with each other and with the professor. There is also a good chance that your teenager doesn’t know which of these he or she would prefer--since most high school students have never experienced huge lectures by brilliant professors. Nonetheless, the topic of class size is something you should think about and talk about with your teenager before you start narrowing down your list of college options.

For now, have your teenager do the necessary college searches and jot down whatever claims each college is making about class size--if any. Or take a look at the common data set on each college’s website and get the figures there.

Download the Assignment #5 Worksheet

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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