Criticizing Student-to-Faculty Ratios

There are a lot of metrics or methods of measuring what we do in higher education. An important one for us professors is faculty full-time equivalent (FTE), which is a percentage calculation of a single faculty member’s teaching. In other words, an FTE of 1.0 represents a full-time professor. Two people hired half-time would also be 1.0. At my institution and system, it is primarily based on teaching load. In my case, teaching my full 4/4 load is represented as 1.0 in a spreadsheet. In that spreadsheet, there is also a tally of all faculty to get an overall number of faculty FTE, which is 428.61 for Fall 2019. This is also done for students and staff as well as using other formulas for measuring the notion of full-time.

Recently, our system has been pressing campuses to reach an ideal 20:1 student to faculty ratio. In other words, twenty student FTEs to everyone one faculty FTE. They are using it as a metric for financial sustainability for individual campuses. This was derived from peak enrollment numbers in the 2010-2011 academic year. This, however, is highly problematic. First, it is extremely high compared to national averages for this ratio. Second, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), “the institution level student-to-faculty ratio was generally not viewed as a useful measure for benchmarking purposes.” The linked report also gives an overview of problems with the metric.

This blog post will look at how that ratio is problematic for my campus. I will discuss how it is calculated, and how it is not a good metric for financial sustainability. This post will be largely explanatory. There is, of course, a deeper critique that can be made about how university finances operate. That’s for a different post.

Numerator – Student FTE

The ratio only changes if A) Enrollment changes B) there new hires or retirees. We need to be careful what we mean when we say enrollment. Just like with faculty FTEs, we are not talking about a headcount of actual human beings for the student side of the ratio. The numerator, or student FTE, is calculated from credit hours generated divided by 14.78 (an average of a full load). So the formula for student FTE is:

Credit Hours Generated / 14.78 = Student FTE

Again, the student enrollment part of the ratio is not the number of students at the institution. It is how many credits they are enrolled in. So, if all existing full-time students take 15 to 18 credits, the ratio will increase (because they are dividing that number by 14.78).

Again, this is driven by so-called financial sustainability. The system seems to assume that the student-side of the ratio represents revenue. Yet, full-time students take between 12 and 18 credit hours – on our campus – for the same amount of tuition. This means that if all students were taking 18 credits, it would not change anything for the institution financially despite increasing the ratio.

Furthermore, graduate students, institutional scholarships, and part-time students make this part of the ratio a bad metric for measuring the financial health of our institutions. Graduate students, for example, pay higher tuition. However, their classes are smaller. This is why the NCES report points to graduate programs as being an issue in the student-to-faculty ratio. Finally, all of this gets much more complicated for campuses in our system with a per-credit tuition model. Further research should be done on the relationship between FTE and headcount enrollment at per credit tuition campuses.

Denominator – Faculty FTE

While student FTE is a stand-in for revenue, it appears that faculty FTE is a stand-in for expenses. There are a lot of issues with Faculty FTE. It should be noted that professors do more than teach. Faculty FTE in this ratio does not capture Alternative Work Assignments (AWA). The FTEs are based on the entire workforce, regardless of what they are doing. Course releases, sabbaticals, etc. still count as part of the institutional ratio. Those in the faculty bargaining unit that work outside of a traditional classroom (such as coaches and librarians in our system) are counted as well.

That said institutions are also required to calculate instructional faculty FTE. This takes out AWA as a percentage of FTE. For example, under this formula, a department chair with 50% release time counts as .50 instructional FTE. This is at least an attempt to associate faculty FTE with students. For my campus, we had an overall Fall 2019 ratio of 16.69 to 1. Without AWA, that rises to 19.67 to 1. In other words, that puts us much closer to the 20:1 ratio. However, just because it is calculated, that’s not the metric our system wants to use.

That said, they are also ignoring other metrics such as manager-to-student ratio. Below is a headcount picture of my campus, which perhaps explains why they don’t want to use that ratio.


Again, all of this is driven by financial sustainability. The emphasis on overall faculty FTE has translated into two things. The first is pressure to cut faculty positions, or not fill vacancies. While fewer faculty would mean fewer salaries to pay, FTE is a horribly inaccurate proxy for personnel expenses. A good example is a full-time faculty member listed as an instructor and a full professor at the top of the pay scale. Both count for 1.0 FTE. However, the full professor is paid double that of the instructor.

The second is that it creates pressure on managers (e.g. deans) who keep hearing the mantra of 20:1. This translates into increasing class sizes. This ignores different types of classes (e.g. graduate seminars, labs, and studio classes) as well as good pedagogy. However, increasing class sizes alone will not change the overall institutional ratio. It just moves the numbers around and creates competition among departments for the same pool of students/credit hours.

Related to this second pressure, since it is an institutional average, some departments will be forced to have higher ratios to offset those with lower ratios. The departments on my campus with the highest ratios by a significant margin are 1) Anthropology & Sociology (25.24). 2) Sports Management and Leadership Studies (24.88). 3) Psychology (24.82). 4) Business Administration (23.41). The result is a highly unequal workload. Something I have written about already. This basically means management is willing to overwork faculty in certain fields, as well as offer fewer resources to students in those programs. It should be noted that on my campus, those are some of the more racially diverse departments