While researching prospective colleges, students and parents encounter a dizzying whirlwind of data and information. It can be so overwhelming that sometimes very important statistics, particularly those that may feel somewhat abstract, end up largely ignored. For whatever reason, stats related to faculty accessibility often find themselves in this category. One school’s 22:1 student-to-faculty ratio versus another’s 8:1 ratio is a number than may fail to evoke a response that moves the needle in any way, or, at least not to a level commensurate with what that differential actually translates to in the real world.

After all, if you are going to be paying as much as $80,000 per year for the privilege of taking ten courses, shouldn’t you be very concerned about whether any of your professors will be available to continue a compelling discussion outside of class hours, offer academic/career/life mentorship, provide opportunities for undergraduate research, or, at the very least, learn your name?

The following blog will address how to use statistics in your own targeted institutional research to assess faculty accessibility at your prospective colleges. In doing so we will look at:

  • Student-to-faculty ratios
  • Who teaches undergraduate classes?
  • Average class size
  • Undergraduate research opportunities
  • Senior thesis requirements
  • Departmental strength and course offerings

Let’s start with one that gets to heart of the potential for professorial accessibility—the sheer number of professors versus the number of students.

Student-to-faculty ratios

To begin with some context, the average student-to-faculty ratio in a U.S. college/university is 16:1. Not surprisingly, the schools with the lowest student-to-faculty ratios are those sitting on the largest endowments. Typically, it takes a good deal of cash in the coffers to be able to—like MIT—afford one faculty member for every three students on campus. Schools with 6:1 student-to-faculty ratios include Harvard (endowment of $40 billion), Yale ($30 billion), Stanford ($29 billion), and Penn ($14 billion). However, there are some colleges that manage to offer very low ratios on a much tighter budgets like Skidmore College, Lawrence University, or DePauw University.

The highest student-to-faculty ratios are generally found at large state universities. Some notable examples include:

  • The University of Central Florida: 30:1
  • San Jose State University: 27:1
  • Cal State – Long Beach: 26:1
  • San Diego State University 25:1
  • University of Texas at Dallas: 24:1
  • University of South Florida: 23:1

Yet, many more selective state universities tend to offer superior ratios. For example:

  • University of Wisconsin—Madison: 17:1
  • University of Michigan: 15:1
  • UVA: 14:1
  • UNC-Chapel Hill: 13:1
  • College of William & Mary: 11:1

A high student-to-faculty ratio is usually a pretty solid indicator of whether you are likely to be the recipient of a reasonable amount of faculty attention. However, it is important to note that, while liberal arts colleges generally utilize their ample faculty resources toward the aim of decreasing class size, some public and private research institutions are equally (or more) focused on graduate students and research projects in a way that can detract from the undergraduate experience. As such, we need to also pay attention to additional metrics, including who is actually teaching the undergraduate courses.

Who teaches undergraduate classes?

Are you likely to be taking introductory courses from a full-time professor, an adjunct professor, or a graduate student? Will most of your interaction come with the professor or with a teaching assistant? In our opinion, these are essential questions to ask when picking a college, but surprisingly, not information that you can easily find for every institution on your list.

We can find out what percentage of a school’s professors are full-time members of the faculty. A high percentage in this category means that the school does not employ a large number of adjunct professors, which is usually a good thing. Many top schools sport a faculty composed of 80%+ full-time instructors. However, it is worth pointing out that excellent schools like Cooper Union, Emerson, and Georgetown do employ large numbers of adjuncts, but this can actually a good thing as these schools can bring in leaders fields like government, the arts, media, and architecture on a part-time basis to share their deep knowledge and real-world experience.

At a liberal arts college with little-to-no graduate student presence, you don’t have to worry about being instructed by anyone by faculty members, most of whom possess a terminal degree in their field. At a larger university, even of the elite variety, you should, in fact, worry about that exact possibility. This is not to say that some graduate students may not turn out to be tremendous instructors, but are you really paying those massive tuition bills to be taught by a fellow student? One way to get a sense of this is to look through a school’s course catalog and cross-reference the names listed as being assigned to courses with those on the departmental website. This is also a reasonable question to ask on college visits or via email to an admissions counselor—“Roughly what percent of your courses are taught by graduate students?”

Class size

Academic research on class size in higher education is not unanimous in its findings related to the correlation between class enrollment and performance, but scholars do generally agree that instructors alter the goals of their course and the types of assignments given, based on the size of their class. Many studies have also found that students learn more and have a more memorable experience when class sizes are on the smaller side, but again, it is not strictly a linear correlation.

Sometimes colleges will advertise their average class size, which can be one useful metric to possess. However, ideally, you will also be able to view the percentage of course sections that enroll various ranges of students.

It is useful to know that if you attend a state school like any of the University of California campuses (including UCLA and Berkeley), you can plan on somewhere between 11-15% of your courses having an enrollment of greater than 100 students. What does this actually mean? Well, if you take approximately 40 classes throughout your collegiate career, you’ll likely be an anonymous face in a lecture hall for 4-6 of those classes. On the other end of the spectrum, when you examine the percent of courses that enroll under 20 students—for many public universities, this number may fall between 20-40%. Translating this to tangible terms, this means that you will only take between 8-16 courses in a setting with fewer than 20 students your entire academic career.

Schools that offer an exceptional percentage of their course offerings with under 20 students include:

  • Babson College: 88%
  • Claremont McKenna College: 83%
  • Dickinson College: 80%
  • Hamilton College: 78%
  • Northwestern University: 77%
  • Princeton University: 75%

Of course, there will (hopefully) also be the chance to connect with professors outside of the classroom, and one of the most impactful ways can be through assisting in academic research.

Undergraduate research opportunities

One sign of a positive climate of teacher-student interaction is the availability of undergraduate research experiences. Unlike the previous categories, these are not stats you can find within a school’s Common Data Set or in U.S. News—there is not a standardized method for collecting the percentage of undergraduate students engaged in research. Fortunately, our book, Colleges Worth Your Money, was able to unearth that precise figure at many schools. Here is a sampling, just to give you a sense of the wide range of opportunities depending on which school you attend:

  • Brown: 54%
  • Case Western: 81%
  • Clark: 67%
  • Gettysburg: 55%
  • Penn State: 20%
  • Rice: 71%
  • Trinity College: 67%
  • Swarthmore: 67%
  • Lawrence: 82%
  • UC Berkeley: 55%
  • University of Florida 33%
  • University of Rochester: 77%
  • UW-Madison: 15%
  • Virginia Tech: 20%

Today, a growing number of schools host annual undergraduate research symposiums and even publish a schoolwide undergraduate research journal. The existence of these features, plus a number of formal summer research programs, and an office or database dedicated to connecting faculty with undergrads toward this purpose are all very good signs.

A senior thesis?

The vast majority of undergraduate institutions in the United States do not require the completion of a senior thesis. To some, this may seem like a reason to celebrate since composing a research paper under the scrutiny of a professor sounds like a rather intimidating proposition. Instead, we would encourage you to think of it as one the premier experiences that your undergraduate tuition dollar can grant you. In fact, researchers have classified this as a “high impact practice” which along with experiences like first-year seminars and undergraduate research can among the most meaningful of one’s entire college career.

Among the universities that require a senior thesis from all graduates, regardless of major, are:

  • Bates College
  • Haverford College
  • Princeton University
  • Reed College
  • Scripps College
  • Union College

At other universities, only those in the Honors College/Program are required to complete a senior thesis. This is indeed the case in the honors programs at Indiana University, Texas A&M, and University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. Some other colleges require graduates of certain departments to complete a thesis, but do not require it across all academic programs.

Departmental strength 

If you are a student who will be entering college already officially in a particular major, or knows what their likely major will be, you’ll want to do additional research in all of the previously covered areas as they pertain to a particular department (or college/school within a larger university).

For example, if you will be studying Computer Science at UC Santa Barbara, you are less interested in that school’s overall numbers, and more focused on the numbers within the Computer Science department. We suggest researching the number of course offerings within your chosen discipline as well as the maximum class size of each section and who regularly teaches introductory courses. This information can typically be found by Googling a school/department’s course catalog. You should also be able to find undergraduate research opportunities specific to your field of study. If you are having trouble locating this information for your school of interest, you can always reach out to a member of the admissions staff with a request.

College Transitions’ final thoughts

There’s a lot to consider when formally adding a prospective college to your list. Dozens of questions flutter around one’s brain as they ponder such an important life decision—some practical (How far from home will I be?), some experiential (Is the social scene right for me?), some frivolous (Do I like the schools colors on a sweatshirt?). While all of these considerations are valid (even the silly ones), we would encourage you/your teen to really think about the actual academic experience that you will be paying for.

Hopefully this blog has been helpful in getting you to think more about the various data points that, collectively, can help assess faculty accessibility.