Episode 170: Why the College’s Class Size Matters

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Well, we are up to Step 7 of your kid’s summer homework, and we are officially halfway there. All 14 steps (7 down, 7 more to go) are explained in our episodes this summer and also at greater length with more examples and details in our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Remember to order a workbook from Amazon for your son or daughter if you want more explanation and the actual worksheets.

Step 7 asks your son or daughter to consider class size as one indication of what his or her academic experience would be like at each college on the LLCO. In other words, we want students to think about how undergraduate enrollment is distributed into the actual classrooms and seminar rooms and labs that they will be sitting in on campus and how that might affect their relationships with their professors. The College Profile Worksheet has just two questions in this section. You will need to use both College Navigator and each college’s website to find the answers to Questions 17 and 18 on class size.

1. Student-to-Faculty Ratio

First, let’s talk about student-to-faculty ratio, as we explained to students in the workbook:

You should look to College Navigator to find the student-to-faculty ratio for each collegein other words, how many students are there for each faculty member. This is a statistic that we mentioned frequently during our virtual college tour [in Episodes 27 through 53, way back in the early days of USACollegeChat], and we know that it is one that many colleges themselves are very proud of. That’s why it is often included in advertising claims about a college.

While you can usually find this statistic on a college’s own website–typically on the Quick Facts or At a Glance or similar page–you can also spend lots of time looking for this statistic and NOT finding it on the website. Trust us on that! So, it’s quicker to use College Navigator, which presents a college’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio on the last line of the opening section of each college’s profile.

Question 17 asks your son or daughter to jot down the student-to-faculty ratio of each college on his or her LLCO. But why? Because . . .

Most people believe that a student’s education is improved if he or she has more access to faculty members–in smaller classes, during less crowded office hours, and through a variety of activities, such as mentorships, special lectures, 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, or 10 students to each faculty member.

We actually don’t have any evidence that this is true, though it certainly seems to be logical. We 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. Many students attend large universities, have relatively little one-to-one contact with their professors, and still get an excellent education. As a matter of fact, some students actually prefer that.

Nonetheless, if you think that you would benefit from a closer, perhaps more nurturing connection to your professors, then checking out the student-to-faculty ratio makes sense. Or, if your parents would feel better knowing that there is a greater chance that a faculty member knows you and is looking out for you, then searching out 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. . . .

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. . . .

The bottom line is this: Don’t think much about the difference between a student-to-faculty ratio of, say, 9-to-1 and 10-to-1 or even 11-to-1. Instead, consider that there might 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.

2. Class Size

Next, Question 18 asks your son or daughter to jot down any information and advertising claims made about class size for each college on his or her LLCO. Here is what we said to students in the workbook:

Class size is exactly what you think it ishow many students are in the classroom with you when you are trying to learn calculus or French literature or whatever you are taking. Some colleges are very proud of their small class sizes. Other colleges that think they don’t have very much to be proud of regarding class size do the best they can to make a good case for their own class sizes. You can find this information on many, many college websites, though you might have to look around a bit. Happy hunting!

Or you can search for the common data set on college websites 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). . . .

But, class size is a matter of personal choice–at least it is once you get into college and take a variety of courses so you know what you are talking about. Some students prefer large classes, like a huge lecture by a brilliant professor. Other students prefer small seminars where students get to express their own opinions and talk back and forth with each other and with the professor. Our honest opinion is that you can’t possibly know right now which of these you would prefer. Why? Because you, like most high school students, have never experienced huge lectures by brilliant professors. Are we right?

Well, that’s Questions 17 and 18 taken care of. It was an easy week. But there are 34 questions left and next week’s topic is one of the biggest. So, rest up!

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