Many students apply to colleges without being able to tour them first. So, if you are in this category, don’t feel bad. You can get just about all the information you need without spending the time and the money.
Should you care about student-faculty ratio? Study after study reveals what we know intuitively – that meaningful faculty contact enhances, deepens, and changes the undergraduate experience significantly for the better. Why? Because faculty are the mentors, the archetypal guides through the academic world. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, with some trepidation, that students should think of faculty as the Merlin of Arthurian legends, as Professor Dumbledore of the Harry Potter series, and as Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars. They know stuff, and they have made a conscious, deliberate, and often difficult decision to devote their lives to teaching, writing and speaking about a field in which you may spend at least a third of your college career.
Many students ignore faculty or try to avoid them. This is a mistake.My strongest advice to undergraduates is: Get to know faculty. If you do nothing else outside of schoolwork, do that. (I will devote a later post to the best ways to do that.) For now, let’s focus on the complicated topic of student-faculty ratio.
Colleges use the student-faculty ratio as a shortcut to convey how much faculty attention a student can expect to get at that school. If the ratio is 20:1, then a student can anticipate getting less individual attention than if the ratio is 7:1.
What more should you find out in order to figure out just how much individual attention you should expect to get from the faculty at a prospective college?
One of the most important numbers you should get is the number of majors in all of the departments that interest you, as well as the number of full-time tenured and full-time tenure-track faculty in those departments.
Let’s say, for example, that you want to attend Princeton, which has a laudable student-faculty ratio of 6:1. (That is truly amazing.) Their acceptance rate is around 6.5%, and the campus has a total of over 8,000 students, approximately 5,400 of whom are undergraduates.
Now, let’s take the example of one of my favorite students from the past who majored in Comparative Literature there and then went to Harvard Law School and is now clerking for a federal judge. The number of faculty in that department is around 20, and the number of majors is in the single digits. That means that the majors (they call them concentrators) in that department will likely have incredible access to the faculty.
What else do you need to keep in mind?
Now let’s look at a very different sort of school. The University of Oregon, with an acceptance rate hovering at about 75%, has over 24,000 students, about 20,000 of whom are undergraduates. It has a student-faculty ratio of 18:1, which is the national average (and is pretty amazing given the size of the school). There are about ten faculty listed on their website in the Comp. Lit. department. Impressively, the department has a journal, a mentorship program, a speaker series, and a conference! They also keep track of their majors after graduation and you can read about what each did after leaving college. Their faculty have degrees from impressive places and they all do very interesting work. They also offer a superb explanation of the reasons someone should major in Comparative Literature. They have around three dozen majors, so based on the numbers and the information on their website, majoring in Comp. Lit. at the University of Oregon would be an amazing experience, too. A ratio of 36:10 is nothing to sneeze at. Plus, at this school, faculty get sabbatical leaves after six years, so the chances of them being on campus and available to undergraduates are over two times that of Princeton.
I bet that the experiences of majoring in Comp. Lit. at Oregon and Princeton with respect to opportunity to engage with faculty are both good if not great because the numbers are so tiny. Both departments are small, the faculty seem eminently qualified, and all of the undergraduates at both places can probably expect to get to know the faculty very well.
On the other hand, let’s say you want to major in Economics at an Ivy-league institution. You will compete for faculty attention with hundreds of other undergraduate and graduate students. But that’s not all you will compete with. You will find that the faculty are pulled in many different directions -- by CNN and other news organizations to comment on current global economic trends and events and they’ll be hired away to consult on global issues by national and international organizations and to speak at large conferences and other forums. Plus they have those pesky graduate students to advice and teach. The faculty in world-renowned departments may, as a result, not be very accessible to undergraduates. At other schools where faculty are pulled away much less, undergraduates may find that faculty are much more available to them.
My point is that you shouldn’t be taken in by the raw student-faculty ratio numbers. There is much more to the story. So, how do you get to the bottom of it?
When you are on campus for tours, listen to the tour guides, but also walk through the departments that interest you.
And whether or not you are able to visit the campus:
Nationally, the student-faculty ratio average is 18:1, which is pretty great. That means that, if you really want to, you can get to know faculty at many, many institutions in the U.S. In the final analysis, I believe that you can have a superlative academic experience whether you choose a large state university or a small private college or something in-between. All it takes is one faculty member to make the difference for you. It’s up to you to find him or her! So maybe we shouldn’t care about student-faculty ratio at all.
Your brain is elastic. If you enrich your environment, you improve your ability to learn. If you try to learn in a less than ideal environment, the brain’s capacity to learn diminishes.
Researchers have identified five factors, in particular, that make the difference. If you pay attention to these, you will increase your ability to learn, have a better academic experience, earn higher grades, and set yourself up for a happier, more fulfilled life in the future.
Of course, you can have too much of a good thing, including environmental enrichment. Overstimulation will lead to exhaustion. Find time for solitude, introspection, and, most importantly, sleep, to balance the enhancements you make to your environment.
This post is based on research done in part by Marian Cleeves Diamond, Enriching Heredity: The Impact of the Environment on the Anatomy of the Brain, Free Press, 1988. See the trailer for the film about her, My Love Affair With the Brain: The Life and Science of Dr. Marian Diamond.
These are real notes received by a college adviser, and there is nothing unusual about them. Every college adviser gets them at the end of the academic year. Of course, they are gratifying. But they are also frustrating. Because, just as the third one reveals, most college students don’t know the value of advising. They don’t really know what it is. Often they do not stumble upon it until a crisis has occurred. Some never reap the benefits of the advising relationship at all.
Why is college advising valuable? Because it provides a safe space for students to tell their story over and over again, to test out ideas for their future, to imagine themselves in somewhat or even radically different roles on the global and local stage. The building block of the advising relationship is the advising conversation. It is through these conversations that students can experience individual decisive moments, moments of realization and transformation. The adviser provides not only an interlocutor but also a sounding board.
Of course, advisers can talk about requirements – though there isn’t a college adviser on the planet who knows all of the requirements for every major, minor, concentration, and program offered on a given campus. But beyond the rules, guidelines, and regulations, advising is the college’s way of offering a safe space in which students are able to imagine themselves as something different in the future, but in accord with their true selves. Another way to put it is that advising creates a space that allows, enables and even encourages students to search themselves by talking about imagined and often previously unimaginable futures.
Advising focuses first and foremost on allowing a student to explore themselves and their personal dreams, desires, and potentials. This verbal exploration of potential futures is a way of discovering one's essence, of defining the things that move us, and keeping in the forefront of our minds what is most important in our lives.
"...good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience.” – Richard Light, author of Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001)
Most colleges spend time in the summer assigning incoming students to their corps of advisers. Some accomplish this task by feeding data about you and your classmates into a computer program, but some still do it by hand. Either way, there is no guarantee that a student will feel a real connection with the assigned adviser. Why? Because it is impossible to predict whether two people will have the spark that is needed to create a substantive and productive advising relationship. Many new college students feel terribly disappointed when they don’t like the adviser they have been so looking forward to meeting.
What can and should you do if you find yourself in this unenviable position?
1) Of course, what you want first and foremost is to ask for a new adviser. Don’t be surprised if the first time you ask to switch, most people at the college will suggest that you give the adviser another try. This is sound advice. After all, the adviser (or you!) may have been having an off day. Keep in mind that, in the first weeks of a semester, advisers are working from early in the morning to late at night in many cases, so schedule another appointment with the adviser and see how it goes.
2) If the second meeting doesn’t go any better from your perspective – and your perspective is the only important one at this point – then ask if there is a way to switch your adviser. Whom do you ask? Whomever at the college is in charge of the advising process. That person may be in Academic Affairs or Student Affairs. They may be called a director or a dean. Schools vary a lot. Google it on the college site or ask an R.A. or a student council member (their names should be easy to find on the college website). Once you find them, see if there is an FAQ that includes the answer to this question. At some schools, you will have to fill out a form to make the request. At others, you will have to meet with someone. The best advising systems will enable you meet with the head of advising so that s/he can learn enough about you that they can make a good match.
3) If there is no way to switch advisers, which is unfortunately quite commonly the case, don’t let it bother you. It’s time to get resourceful. You are about to start creating your own “board of advisers.” College advising is not a one-stop shopping experience. In that way, it resembles life. Throughout our lives, we build an ever-changing personal board of advisers, that is, people who serve as our confidantes and our sounding boards for umpteen different purposes. To offer a simplistic example, I have friends I turn to when I need advice on foreign films, and others to whom I turn when I have a legal question. The friend who has knowledge of foreign films is frankly useless when it comes to legal questions. And I would never ask my lawyer buddy about the foreign film festival. Just as in life, advisers are thick on the ground in every college community. Advisers of all sorts. Begin talking to older students about faculty, T.A.’s, and administrators who can be approached with questions about courses and majors to begin with. There are dozens if not hundreds of people on your new campus who are truly interested in you, your well-being and your academic and your non-academic life. Once you have a short list from older students, find out their office hours and begin to visit them. Explain to them that you are new to campus and are looking for some advice about some things, and see how they react. You will be surprised how many of them will be open to you and interested in you as a person. Cultivate your own board of advisers in this way throughout your time in college.
My next post will focus on why college advising is so important!
1) Don’t listen too much to other students’ assessments of instructors. Make up your own mind. As you sign up for and start attending classes, try not to listen to the opinions of other students. Everyone likes different teaching styles and appreciates different personalities. Also, ignore the ratings sites; they are filled with comments from those who loved and those who hated an instructor. Trust your own judgment first and foremost.
2) Choose only one extra-curricular for the first semester. Though your course schedule may only show 14-20 hours of class a week, and you may be wondering what you will do with the other 152-148 hours in a week, resist the urge to sign up for lots of clubs and activities. Acclimating to college is like an extra course. And you will want to find some time for yourself and your new friends as well as for studying, reading, do problem sets, and writing papers at least two to three hours per week for each credit of coursework.
3) Plan to study abroad. Peruse the global offerings and start talking right away to your adviser and faculty about where to fit in a semester in another country, especially if it requires knowledge of a foreign language. Having academic experience abroad will not only give you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn and grow as a human, but will give you a leg up when you look for internships and jobs in the future.
4) Get to know faculty. Faculty have weekly office hours and the truth is that many of them sit alone during that timeslot every week. Students are missing out on a fantastic opportunity for mentorship, guidance, and getting to know another human. Look up the faculty member, know a little about their research and background, and think of a couple of questions you would like to ask them – about the course, about where they went to college and graduate school, about the field in which they specialize. Address them with a proper title, take your cap off, sit up, and shut your phone off. Research has proven that students who develop substantive connections with faculty have an exponentially enhanced academic experience. Plus they can really help you make good decisions in your life and career.
5) Assuming you want to get a job after college, you must read the NACE list. The National Association of Colleges and Employers has done research you need to know about on career readiness. As you choose your courses, faculty, advisers, extra-curriculars, internships, and volunteer work, think about which competencies you are developing that will make you most ready to join the world of work.
6) Go to class, do your homework, take your tests, and ask for help when you need it. This may seem ridiculous, but there is a prevailing culture at many colleges that you don’t have to go to class, can let your homework slide, should take as few tests as possible, and should never ever ever ask for help. These are all wrong. Keep in mind that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of maturity. As they say, “No human is an island.” We all need help at some point. Colleges have dozens if not hundreds of employees who stand ready to make your college years as enjoyable and rich as possible.
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.