January 17, 2023
Explaining student-to-faculty-ratio
Student-to-faculty ratio is a popular metric when researching colleges. Learn more about how it’s measured and what people say about its impact on the college experience.


Students should think deeply not only about what they enjoy learning, but how they like to learn. One important metric to consider is the student-to-faculty ratio. In its simplest terms, this term refers to the number of students divided by the number of faculty members. If a college has 2,000 undergrads and 200 full-time faculty members who support them, the ratio for that college will be 2,000/200 = 10:1. Student-to-faculty ratio is reported by schools and can be usually be found on a school’s website.

So…why does student-to-faculty ratio matter? That one metric can tell you a lot about a prospective college. It can make an impact on a student’s experience.

The average student-to-faculty ratio in 2020 was 14:1, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Loper asks students about student-to-faculty ratio on its mobile app.

The types of students that may benefit from a low student-to-faculty ratio:

Many students are looking for an average or below average student-to-faculty ratio. College can be overwhelming. Large classes with less professor interaction can be harder for many new college students. There are lots of students who pay attention to this metric in college search, such as those who:

  • like smaller classes where they can participate actively and not fade into the background
  • want to get to know their professors and build an early network
  • need extra accountability to go to all of their classes or stay organized
  • want to get to know their classmates through collaboration in class

If you don’t hear it discussed by the school when you are first meeting admissions officers or touring campuses, make sure to ask two questions:

  1. What is the student-to-faculty ratio?
  2. What is the average class size?

We recently spoke to a student who spent one year at a large research university before transferring and graduating from a smaller liberal arts college. He expressed three different levels of how student-to-faculty ratio played out in his college experience.

  1. Lecture-style classes at large university were hard for his learning style. He felt uninspired and said it was very hard to concentrate and keep up with his work.
  2. Standard classes at the liberal arts college had around 20 students in a room. This was better for him as he could focus and was accountable.
  3. Small-style classes found in the final year at the liberal arts college, for example, his thesis group, would have only 6-8 students. He was glad to have the support, but wouldn’t want classes that small all of the time.

It should be noted, then, that there are students who may benefit from the style of lecture courses with discussion sections. They might be more rare than learners who benefit from a smaller classroom, but nonetheless, there are students who:

  • prefer to listen to learn and then discuss later to process and confirm the learnings
  • are more nervous participants (particularly in new settings)
  • want a mixture of course size to expose themselves to different learning models

While it’s often true that smaller schools have lower student-to-faculty ratios, that doesn’t guarantee that all classes will be small. Popular, intro-level classes may be large. Similarly, bigger universities may stage their courses to decrease in ratio over time, and students can find small classes in discussion-driven subjects.

Overheard at Loper:

We spend all day talking to people about their college experience, and we hear plenty about student-to-faculty ratio:

From counselors:

Yvonne Espinoza, College Counselor at Yvonne Espinoza College Counseling Services and board member of non-profit Colleges That Change Lives, spends quality time asking powerful questions:

“I encourage my students to think about their learning styles when considering student-to-faculty ratios. Although some may find it intimidating to be in smaller classes where they may be expected to contribute regularly, this could be the very learning environment certain students will thrive in academically. Discussion-based learning can encourage a student to arrive prepared for each class, improve communication, and build confidence by speaking in front of others. Students need to explore beyond what is familiar and ask the hard questions to find the right experience.”

Sawyer Earwood, co-founder of Virtual College Counselors, uses his experience as an admissions counselor at Hendrix College (11:1 student-to-faculty ratio) to help guide his college counseling practice:

“As an admissions counselor, I often highlighted the student-to-faculty ratio and the tight knit community on campus. If a student misses a class at Hendrix, it's not uncommon to have a professor reach out due to genuine concern (rather than being upset for missing a class). Working with students as a college counselor, I encourage families and students to dig a bit deep through several questions like:
What is the largest class on campus?
What about the smallest class?
What about the average or median sized classes?
How do professors interact with students outside of the class?
How does the school assign advisors to students?”

From alumni:

We checked in with Hanan, Grinnell College alum. Currently, Grinnell has a 9:1 student faculty ratio, and most classes have fewer than 20 students. Here’s what Hanan has to say about her experience with professors:

“Being able to say hello to your faculty fosters better discussions that really engage students with their peers and classmates. I had a few professors that had us for dinner! It made for a more personal and supportive relationship. I really felt like my professors cared!”

Dig deeper to understand student-to-faculty ratio

When understanding your potential academic fit in a school or program, start with understanding if you prefer to learn in an environment with a smaller student-to-faculty ratio. But go further in research to understand what your academic environment might look like across the types of classes you’ll be in (lectures or seminars or labs) based on your academic interest. Be prepared to experience all different types of course styles, whether they are driven by discussion groups, lectures or smaller roundtable conversations. It can benefit to be in those different models to get a taste for different types of learning!

Loper is a free phone app that helps students discover their interests and the colleges that match them. If you’d like to learn more about our platform and mission, we’d love to stay in touch through the email below.

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