Class Size Statistics: Are They Important?

If you’re in college search mode, chances are you’ve seen plenty of student-to-faculty ratio and average class size statistics. Especially if these numbers are low, schools will display them anywhere and everywhere a prospective student may be looking. But what do these statistics mean, and how important should they be to your decision about where to apply?

As its name suggests, average class size refers to the mean number of students per class at a given school, for example, 15 students per class. A student-to-faculty ratio is based on how many faculty members there are at a college in comparison to the number of enrolled students. For example, a 20:1 ratio means that for every 20 students at a school there is one faculty member.

It’s generally assumed that the smaller the class size and ratio, the higher the educational quality of a school. Smaller numbers usually mean a more intimate and interactive classroom, with more opportunity for students and faculty members to get to know one another. While this is certainly the case at many schools with low numbers, it is important to note that these statistics do not tell you all that you need to know about a school’s classroom experience, nor are they the only factors that determine the quality of a school’s educational experience.

For instance, it’s entirely possible for a school to have a small average class size and student-to-faculty ratio, yet still have some professors who stand and deliver lectures with little to no opportunity for interaction or discussion. Also, unless you are looking at a particular department’s website (more on that below), the statistics that schools display are for the school as a whole. This means that while a school’s advertised average class size and student-to-faculty ratio are low – a “small” class in a popular major such as Economics may be 50, whereas a “small” class in something like German Studies may be 7.

To get a fuller picture of the classroom experience at a particular school, see if you can schedule a meeting with a professor in your area(s) of interest, or even better, try to sit in on a class. That can give you a much better idea as to the types and quality of professors and classes at a school. You can also ask an admissions officer to connect you to current students to ask them about their experiences. Lastly, look at the websites of the department(s) in which you’re interested to see if they provide their specific average class size and student-to-faculty ratio; these statistics can be much more useful to you (versus the statistics for the school overall) in helping you decide what school is your best fit academically.

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