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The Truth Behind Student-to-Faculty Ratios

Another Misleading Statistic Cited by Colleges Looking to Lure Students and Parents

Editor's note: This column has regularly appeared on Westport Patch and now also appears here.

Last week, we and the difficulty of obtaining quality information. College admissions can be very emotional. Many families who are under the normal strain of rearing a teenager can barely survive the additional stress of college admissions. While no single prescription will cure every ailment, there is something that always helps: Good information.

Using view books, websites, sales letters, postcards, campus tours and interviews, colleges fill you with information about the college: the new $50 million gym is almost done, we’ve invested $4 million in new computers, Alice Walker spoke here last week. Before we review what’s important in gauging a college, let’s first consider what’s not important. Unregulated and aggressive college marketing is very selective about the facts that are revealed.

Student/Faculty Ratio

Everyone loves the student-to-faculty ratio. Is the college with only six students per faculty member better than the college with 11 students per faculty member? The answer is: I have no idea and neither do you. Further, there’s no way of getting an answer to that question. Why? Because the numbers that colleges report are completely misleading. To arrive at a student-to-faculty ratio, colleges take the total number of faculty members on the payroll and divide that by the total number of matriculated students. Now that seems logical, but if Harvard’s student-to-faculty ratio is 13:1, then why are there many 300+ student classes?

Here’s why: Say there are 2,000 faculty members at a top university of 20,000 students (ratio of 10:1). At any given time, 400 of the faculty members are doing “research” or on sabbatical (meaning they don’t teach), 200 are on leave for some other reason, and 100 are currently teaching at another college (though counted as faculty members at both colleges.) Of the 1,300 faculty members remaining, 500 of them are senior faculty who teach only one class per semester (at most) and teach only small upper-level seminars that are limited to the top juniors and seniors.

Now we’re only left with 800 faculty members to teach 18,000 students (I’ve subtracted out the 2,000 top upperclassmen who take classes from the 500 senior professors.) Now the student-to-faculty ratio is 23:1. And of those 800 faculty members remaining, 500 of them are graduate teaching assistants (grad students) and adjuncts (academic coolies) who make less than $25,000 per year. So the ratio of students to professors (not grad students or adjuncts) is 60:1 (18,000:300), and that’s why you get so many 300+ classes at colleges that claim to have a student-to-faculty ratio of 10:1.

The above example isn’t true at all colleges, but no college reports student-to-faculty ratios faithfully; they don’t reveal how many professors actually teach. The problem is far worse at universities that rely on the cheap labor of graduate students and adjuncts who teach in place of the professors who are off doing “research.” For example, Swarthmore cannot replace professors with cheap grad students because they don’t have grad students. However, colleges from NYU to Harvard and Yale rely heavily on their grad students. Many of the famous professors at top colleges don’t teach, teach only very exclusive senior seminars, or teach 500-1000 student lectures. (In fact, many top professors are often lured away from one college to another with the promise that they won’t be required to teach or will have to teach only one lecture per semester.) The actual 30-student class of freshmen and sophomores is taught by a grad student or adjunct.

To provide a specific example, let’s look at the famed University of Wisconsin. In a recent year, Wisconsin had 2,027 professors on its payroll, but only 1,318 actually taught classes. So only 65 percent of Wisconsin’s professors actually taught a class. To make matters worse, these 1,318 professors only taught, on average, 4-6 hours per week (6 hours of teaching is equivalent to teaching no more than 2 classes.) The result? Despite rapidly increasing enrollment, Wisconsin actually had fewer professors teaching classes and fewer classes offered each semester, which is why many students have reported graduating from Wisconsin without taking a single class with fewer than 100 students. And yet the University of Wisconsin currently reports a 17:1 student/faculty ratio (but lists on its website what appears to be a 21:1 ratio.)

There’s no way of knowing what the true student-to-professor ratio of a college is, and there isn’t much you can do about the situation other than to avoid research schools and universities with large grad schools (which means avoiding all public universities and most of the Ivies.) What you should do is avoid considering the student-to-faculty ratio when comparing colleges; it’s meaningless and most colleges can invent and invariably defend any ratio they wish.

The student/faculty ratio is supposed to give you an idea of the quality of teaching, but it is not a qualitative measurement, and as a quantitative measurement, it is highly inaccurate. In addition, most of the best teachers in the country aren’t famous and, in many cases, aren’t at the top colleges.

If the top colleges wished to convey the quality of their teachers, then perhaps they would publicize the respected Carnegie Foundation’s annual survey of top professors. Top colleges don’t publicize this report because their professors rarely receive recognition for teaching; recently, only one of the 48 professors singled out for recognition taught at a top college (Dartmouth), and the Professor of the Year at an undergraduate college teaches at the College of the Holy Cross. Odd – isn’t it? – that the top colleges are so eager to publicize bogus student/faculty ratios but are rarely recognized for employing top teachers.

Size of Library

Colleges with large libraries like to boast about the number of volumes they have (and the number of subscriptions, microfiche, and so forth.) It’s truly one of the sillier boasts that colleges make. Harvard’s library is seven times larger than Dartmouth’s; is Harvard seven times better that Dartmouth? Penn State’s library is bigger than Swarthmore’s. Does it matter?

Sure, you need to have a good library, but any library with 500,000 or more books should provide everything an undergraduate might need. Besides, quantity does not predicate quality, and this is particularly true with libraries. In most cases, only graduate students require the obscure resources that a seven million-volume library might provide. In addition, local, hardcover resources are less vital in the era of the Internet. Also most libraries have arranged inter-collegiate loan privileges for its students, so you may borrow books from other colleges or public libraries. Between the Internet and inter-library loans, you should be able to get any book (or article, essay, or other piece of information) you’re interested in, even if your college’s library does not have it.

Often, getting information from the Internet or from interlibrary loans is actually preferable than getting it from your own college’s library. One of the great banes of college life is the hefty library late fines you will pay. There are no late fines for getting information from the Internet, and most interlibrary loan periods are much longer (often an entire semester) than your college’s loan period. Ultimately, it makes no difference if college A has 700,000 books, college B has 1.7 million books, and college C has 6.2 million books. Chances are you will try to get the information from the Internet or from interlibrary loan anyway.

This is the second in a . The next installment will look at more worthless college information, including research dollars, shiny new buildings and special speakers.

Interested Party May 28, 2011 at 05:31 PM
So, who is it who really cares about these ratios, colleges marketing people, parents, students, certainly not employers?
Jerry McTigue May 29, 2011 at 12:58 AM
Very telling information. I think colleges today are marketed like any other business: overhyped, deceptive information, costly promotiional campaigns that are paid for by already exorbitant tuitions. It's a bloated, fat-cat industry in dire need of reform, that saddles students and parents with crushing long-term debt while offering a product of ever decreasing value. Thanks for exposing these educational sleights of hand!

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