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.
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.