What Statistics Matter in Evaluating Colleges?

When students and parents begin the process of applying to college, they’ll encounter plenty of statistics: acceptance rate, retention rate, class size, and more. These figures can be confusing and overwhelming, often because it’s unclear what information they actually convey. Which statistics actually matter when evaluating colleges? Here are some common numbers you’ll see and factors to consider when weighing their importance.

 

Acceptance Rate

 

Many students weigh the acceptance rate of a given institution heavily when considering whether to apply or attend, often because a low acceptance rate generally denotes prestige. However, it’s important to keep in mind that acceptance rates are frequently skewed since many colleges attempt to lower their acceptance rate to appear more selective and improve their rankings.

 

One way institutions do this is with yield protection. Yield refers to the proportion of accepted students to those who end up attending. Colleges strive for higher yields because this is an indicator of desirability; a high yield means more students saw their school as a top choice. When colleges engage in yield protection, they reject or waitlist highly qualified students under the assumption that they will be accepted to and attend more elite colleges. This practice is nicknamed “Tufts syndrome” because Tufts has been accused of engaging in it frequently. By rejecting these qualified candidates, schools artificially decrease their acceptance rates, making them look more selective.

 

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider acceptance rate; it can be an important factor in determining your likelihood of admission and whether the school is a safety, target, or reach. However, you should be mindful of the fact that the listed acceptance rate may not always be reflective of reality.

 

Retention rate

 

Retention rate indicates how many first-year students return to a given school for a second year. For instance, if a college has a 90% retention rate, it means that 90% of the freshman class, including part-time and full-time (but excluding non-matriculated students), returned for their sophomore year.

 

Retention rate is an important factor to consider because it can offer you insight into how well the school engages students and helps them adjust to the college. If a college has a low retention rate, it might suggest that students are dissatisfied with some aspects of the school. Students who are unhappy with the academics, campus life, extracurricular and social groups, or other qualities of the school will be more likely to transfer, influencing the retention rate.

 

Graduation Rate

 

Colleges often list their 6-year graduation rates (sometimes 4-year, as well). Higher graduation rates, like retention rates, tend to mean that schools have supported their students well. This may mean that advising at the school is accessible, and students regularly meet with faculty mentors to ensure they’re on track to graduate. Graduation rates can be an important financial factor, as not graduating on time means an extra semester or year of tuition.

 

Faculty to Student Ratio

 

Faculty to student ratio can be misleading because much of the contact you have with your instructors depends on your major and the courses you take. For example, a biology major will likely be part of a huge lecture for an introductory course in her major, while a Spanish major is more likely to take a smaller seminar. The number of faculty there are in proportion to students doesn’t really have much bearing on how much students interact with faculty.

 

Students who wish to engage with faculty can almost always seek them out during office hours, where they can discuss issues or ask questions one-on-one, or in a small group setting. Students in smaller classes can also choose to participate more, which will facilitate interaction with their instructors. These encounters largely depend on the student taking the initiative to make contact, not on the number of students there are compared with faculty members.

Class Size

 

Class size is another statistic that largely depends on your major and level more than anything else; it can also depend on the size of the school. Science and math courses are often large lectures at the early levels, while humanities courses are often smaller seminar-style classes. Class sizes also tend to decrease as students advance and the material becomes more specialized. Chances are, no matter what the advertised average class size is for a given college, you’re likely to encounter both large and small courses over the course of your college career.

 

Number of Courses Taught by Professors vs. Grad Students

 

It stands to reason that most students would prefer courses taught by faculty as opposed to graduate students, since professors are generally experts — sometimes renowned ones — in their fields. However, while it’s true that faculty often excel in their topics, teaching is just one part of a faculty member’s job, and being well-versed in the subject doesn’t always translate to teaching it well.

 

A study conducted by faculty at Stanford and Harvard suggests that undergraduate students may actually benefit from learning from graduate students as opposed to faculty. It found that undergraduates whose first course in a given subject is taught by a graduate student are almost twice as likely to major in that subject, compared with those who take the same course from a full-time faculty member.

 

That’s not to say there aren’t many excellent instructors who are faculty members; there certainly are. This statistic just shouldn’t necessarily be a making or breaking point for students in the admissions process.

 

For More Information

 

Are you working on your college applications? Sign up for one of our free webinars to learn more about topics like Ivy League admissions and how to write the Common App Essay. If you sign up for our mailing list, we’ll let you know when more webinars become available!

 

Also take a look at our other blog posts about the college applications process:

 

What Makes a Good College List

How to Pick Which Teachers to Ask for Letters of Recommendation

What Should You Do if You Can’t Visit a College?

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.