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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
We spend all day talking to people about their college experience, and we hear plenty about student-to-faculty ratio:
“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?”
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!”
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!
Enter your email and we'll send you new resources for students and counselors as we build them.