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Should Student-Teacher Ratio Matter When I’m Choosing a College?

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There’s no denying that some students thrive in one learning environment over another. You might be the kind of student who learns best through frequent peer interactions and group projects. Perhaps you’re the kind of student who prefers a huge class with more anonymity, or maybe you learn best with individualized attention.


If you prefer small classes or more individualized learning, and you’re beginning to look seriously at colleges, the student-teacher ratio of prospective universities may be a major consideration in your college search. While your concerns are well-founded, and it’s great that you already recognize the learning environments best suited to your learning style, you might want to think twice about the weight you’re giving to the student-to-faculty ratio statistics.


While this metric is commonly used to rank schools and can be interpreted as a way to predict class size, individual attention, and sometimes even quality of education, it is not always an accurate depiction of what you will encounter as a student. Instead, you should consider the bigger picture, taking your specific program of interest and a few other statistics into account as well.


To learn more about student-teacher ratio and what it does and does not mean for undergraduate students across the country, keep reading.


How is student-teacher ratio calculated?

Student-teacher ratio is a very straightforward metric. It is calculated simply by dividing the total number of students by the total number of professors. The resulting statistic is usually communicated as a number ranging from as little as 3-to-1 to as high as 30- or even 40-to-1.


As pointed out by the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative, however, there is some uncertainty around who exactly is included in this calculation. Sometimes, part-time students or faculty are included and other times they are not. Sometimes only faculty who teach credit-bearing classes are included; other times, teachers who teach virtual graduate-level classes are included.


The National Postsecondary Education Cooperative has even proposed that further clarifications need to be made in order to better standardize the metric. They go so far as to suggest that average undergraduate class size or other similar metrics should be used to give more context to student-teacher ratios.


What does student-teacher ratio mean?

Student-teacher ratios are often interpreted as overall predictors of class size or individualized attention from faculty. This is considered important because research has shown that in general, smaller class size is predictive of higher student achievement. In addition, smaller student-teacher ratios are often, but not always, associated with an overall smaller student body.


In reality, though, the student-teacher ratio is a simple calculation that means different things in different contexts. On its own, it’s hard to say whether or not the ratio means that a particular school has small class sizes. Instead, as an overall average, it might suggest whether a school generally has large classes or fewer teaching faculty, but it in no way is the ultimate predictor of this. You’ll need to ask more questions at specific colleges before you know what the student-teacher ratio there actually means about class size and individualized instruction.


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Does a smaller student-teacher ratio mean I will be in smaller classes?

A smaller student-teacher ratio is not a guarantee that you will experience smaller class size across the board. Many introductory level classes are held as large lectures, even if a college has a small student-teacher ratio. This is usually due to the number of students enrolled in a few key classes. While introductory classes might be huge lectures, it’s not uncommon even at the biggest universities for upper-level classes to be taught in smaller seminars, but you can’t be certain unless you ask each specific school and department.


Additionally, the exact student-teacher ratio of each program can vary significantly. Sometimes, for example, a college will have a relatively large student-teacher ratio, but a smaller department within the school, such as the biology or sociology department, will have a much smaller ratio. If you enroll in a major that is not particularly popular, you may find yourself in small classes across the board.


What should I do if I learn best in small groups?

If you learn best in small groups, it’s best to ask more targeted questions when creating your college list instead of just looking at student-teacher ratio.


Some questions you might ask at a college fair or to admissions representatives might include:


  • What is your average class size?
  • What percent of classes have fewer than 20 students?
  • How available are professors to meet one-on-one outside of class time?
  • I am interested in the [fill in the blank] program. Do you happen to know the student-to-faculty ratio in that department? If not, could you point me to someone who might?


In addition, you should become proactive about creating the learning environment that works best for you. If your classes are big, attend office hours to ask more questions and to form a more personalized relationship with your professor. You could also seek out study groups or find a tutor. By taking the initiative to create your own learning environment, you become the captain of your own educational journey, and those leadership skills will extend well beyond college.


If you are using common college ranking metrics to help create your college list, be sure that you understand exactly what each means and doesn’t mean. Explore how each is calculated and ask yourself what it really represents. Finally, research not just the school in general, but the specific programs or departments you’re most likely to pursue. At many schools, the overall school statistics will be irrelevant once you settle into your academic track.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!


For more information about choosing a college, check out these CollegeVine posts:



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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.