Why Do Selective Universities Choose to Remain Small? (Part 2 of 2)

In Part 1 of Why Selective Universities Choose to Remain Small, I discussed the potential benefits of admitting more students into the nation’s most prestigious universities. In Part 2 of this newsletter, I want to focus on institutional complexities at top research universities.

When it comes to teaching, size does matter. Edward C. Kokkelenberg, a professor of economics at Binghamton University, has analyzed a large data set from a public university. He found that student grades and course satisfactions are generally lower in larger classes.

Last fall a team of scholars at the London School of Economics and Political Science led by Oriana Bandiera released a similar study about a large English university. They found that student test scores benefited from classes smaller than 30 and suffered when students were assigned to courses larger than 100. But they found no significant effects within a large range of intermediate class sizes, between roughly 35 and 100. Moving a class to, say, 80 students from 50 or vice versa did not seem to matter much.

When it comes to size, it is difficult to reliably compare faculty/student ratios across institutions. For example, a faculty-student ratio of 1 to 8 at Amherst College should not be interpreted the same as at Stanford University. At Amherst, faculty teaches only undergraduate students as it offers no graduate programs. At Stanford, many faculty do not only teach undergraduates, they also teach master and doctoral students, while maintaining a heavy administrative workload.

From my many years of interacting closely with faculty, I notice that they work long hours a week. For many professors, a work week is defined approximately as: assistant professors, 60 hours/week; associate professors, 55 hours/week; full professors, 58 hours/week. According to a faculty survey at Stanford, more than half of the faculty feel that their workload is high or much too high.

Angela, 7, following mom at work...As you can see, it is not only the undergraduate students faculty work with, it is also the master’s, PhD’s, visiting scholars, and sometimes even post-docs they interact with at the top research universities. For the non-tenured junior faculty, they often have to put in a great number of hours to get to the top of their field, and most faculty know that it is publish or perish for them. As a result, assistant professors spend more time on research and scholarship, while their administrative workload is kept to a minimum.

Full professors, on the other hand, spend more time on administrative tasks, such as academic decision-making, curriculum review and development, faculty review and mentoring, and service on university committees. At the same time, most faculty are engaged in scholarly research, publications, professional conferences, and public presentations.

At all top universities, striving for excellence in all they do. The key to everything they do is the quality of their people–faculty, students, and staff–and how well they work together to create great learning experiences for everyone.

In their effort to recruit and retain “top” students, institutions have chosen to remain small to make sure that they provide ample resources to assure that students are able to reach their highest potential as future leaders in their chosen fields. It is unlikely that selective universities will increase their freshman size until they have found answers to the following questions:

  • How could they best serve the rising seniors without adding extra weight to the already overworked faculty and under-compensated staff?
  • How could they ensure that universities maintain close interactions between students and faculty while serving more students?
  • Where would they house the additional students and how could they find money to build new dorms?
  • How would they continue to provide financial aid to ensure that the universities are still accessible to those who are in need?

What most people did not realize is that even a small increase in the number of freshmen would have significant educational, social, and financial consequences for the university.

This is the Ivy League challenge. This is our mission.

Wan Chen, Admissions Advisor

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