Student Faculty Ratio and the Contingent Faculty

Low student to faculty ratios and small class sizes are often cited when considering the quality of a school's educational experience. This year, Harvard reported a 7 to 1 student to faculty ratio, while the University of Florida reported a 22 to 1 ratio.  Does this mean that Harvard's educational experience is better than Florida's? 

Possibly, but what does the student to faculty ratio and small class size mean. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, there are 18 million postsecondary students and 1.3 million college faculty. Doing the math, this translates into, nationally, a ratio of 13.8 students for each faculty member. 

Yet, it's not that simple. Of the 1.3 million faculty members, 700,000 are full-time faculty (FTE), and 600,000 are part-time, also known as contingent faculty (many are adjunct professors) members. Approximately 11 million students are full time. Going through some re-calculations, the student faculty ratio becomes about 16 to 1. Most people assume that the full-time faculty number is only composed of tenure track professors. In 1975, over 56% of the nation's professors were tenure track; today that figure is less than 30% and declining.  

Don’t think that the most selective schools are immune to the rapid decline of tenure track professors. James Shapiro of Columbia University, in a recent article from the New York Review of Books, critiqued a recent book on how to read Hamlet, opined: “Reading this book prompted some speculation of my own. I wondered what it revealed about the disillusionment of scholars like Rhodri Lewis, who, Hamlet-like, expected, when their turn came, to inherit an academic kingdom. With funding for higher education slashed, literature departments downsized, full-time faculty replaced by adjuncts, and illustrious universities like my own choosing to hire only at the entry level to replace those of us who will be retiring, the prospects facing the next generation of academics are dismal. Depressingly, there is only a single position advertised this year in all of North America for a senior Shakespeare scholar.”

Adding a tenure track professor costs between $75,000-150,000, something most administrators are trying to avoid with the decline in public funding and the reduction in endowments. Adjunct professors are an alternative for many schools. Adjuncts are freelancers paid between $1,500 and $6,000 per course.

 Most adjuncts, however, are outside the college community, rarely have offices or office hours, and may or may not be easy to contact. Moreover, because they’re not on tenure track their recommendations often don’t carry weight for advanced degree programs. Regardless, in some schools, adjuncts teach up to 25-30% of the courses. 

Many research universities turn to Teacher Assistants (TAs) for grading and leading class discussion. Virtually all national research universities with sizeable graduate programs use TAs to teach undergraduates (this includes UCLA, Yale, Harvard, and Columbia, to name a few).

While small class sizes might signal that the school encourages close relationships between students and professors, it can also mean other things having nothing to do with the quality of the educational experience. If you want to get to the heart of why a certain school's classes are small, or why its student faculty ratio is low, start by asking the following:

  • How difficult is it for students to register for courses?
  • How does the school allocate slots in popular courses?
  • Which majors are most impacted by small class sizes?
  • How many courses are taught by part-time faculty or adjunct professors?
  • Do teacher assistants play a major role in teaching key introductory courses?
  • What portion of the faculty are tenure track?

Another good idea: do the basic research. Know your schools, and the departments you're interested in. If possible, visit the school, attend a class, and speak to students in the department of your potential major-their knowledge is current. Realize that student to faculty ratios and 'small class size' can mean a lot of things. It's up to you to figure out how they might impact the quality of your educational experience.