On the Importance of Faculty/Student Ratios in the Discussion of the Quality of the Student Experience

In recent weeks I have heard and frequently read statements that draw conclusions about the impact of increasing class size and failure to reappointment lecturers that confound the impact of the rescissions caused by the budget reduction imposed on CAS and the impact of the UVM’s need to have CAS reach by fall a faculty/student ratio of 17:1. Further complicating an understanding of cause, effect and possible response is confusion over what is being referred to people use the word “quality.” Here’s my attempt to throw some light on this complicated subject and pose what I see as a real challenge to addressing the issue of quality as I think it is most frequently being defined.
First, there is a financial plan for UVM’s growth which is predicated on UVM’s being at a student/faculty ratio of 16:1. My Spring 2005 letter of appointment as dean suggests that 16/1 is the CAS target. However, in 2007, CAS was told that its ratio was 17:1 and that this target was required of CAS for the entire campus to get to 16:1. In the interim CAS was moving toward a higher ratio mostly be adding capacity in the social and natural sciences, where the demand by larger cohorts of students was high. At the same time, beginning a good deal before 2005, Departments in CAS began to use CE courses to manage the demand CAS was not budgeted to support, such that a larger and larger proportion of CAS students were being taught via CE and those students were not being counted in the calculation of the CAS faculty/student ratio (nor were, or are, those in the Honors College). Repeated timely requests for this calculation to be adjusted to include CAS students taught by CE were denied.
This past year, CAS was told that it would be penalized $870,000 for not reaching its student/ faculty ratio and informed in August that this was equivalent to having more than 20 FTE faculty it “did not need.” Payment of the penalty has not yet been made, but has been stayed until 2010 and 2011, when the current plan is to have CAS return that amount in two equal payments. CAS moved quickly to avoid such penalties in future by working both to increase the numerator and decrease the denominator in the student/faculty ratio. The only way to do this was, first, to move the CAS students from CE to CAS instruction and thus increase the numerator. The result was that some lecturers in CE became redundant. The second part of this strategy was guided by a conscious attempt to preserve the predominance of small classes that are a core value in CAS and an important market niche for UVM and provide adequate capacity for all CAS students. Thus departments that had large classes (80+) were encouraged to make them even larger and those departments (mostly in the humanities) whose individual student/faculty ratios were low, were asked to mount a small number of large classes taught by faculty known to be skilled lecturers. (In addition, as I described in a prior blog, CAS asked the administration for funding for a new program of undergraduate teaching fellows to assist with these larger classes and was awarded $80,000 for that purpose). The $870,000 penalty, we have now been informed, may be lifted if we actually can show that the student/faculty ratio has been reached when an estimate of that ration is calculated in fall after add/drop. If the ratio is not reached, the presumption is that CAS will continue to experience future financial penalties.
All this would have happened and did happen separate from the rescission. The rescission was a $1.76m cut of base-budget funding. It was accomplished by “cashing in” 7 vacant tenure-track lines and two vacant staff positions and the associated benefits of about 40% of salary, including two lines that had been under active recruitment at the time and have since been returned for fall, 2009 recruitment. In the mix was also savings from departmental and college operating funds, return of most of the HELIX Program to the Provost’s Office, savings on chair stipends as the result of a new, and more equitable method of compensation, a small amount of base-budget lecturer funding (that we planned to try to replace with one-time funding released from leaves and sabbaticals) and 5 staff positions (we await word due in May on whether or not these positions slated for phase 2 of the layoffs will in fact result in layoffs–also see a prior blog). The major portion of this rescission now remains 5 vacant tenure-track faculty lines. This needs to be seen in context: CAS has over 300 faculty.
So how does all this affect the quality of the undergraduate educational experience? There will be some larger classes and there will be some large classes in programs that never had them before. Will this affect the quality of the undergraduate educational experience? These students will have less face time with faculty than they otherwise would and, thus, the student/faculty relationship in these classes will be different than that experienced in smaller classes. However, it is important to note that most classes remain small (again, see prior blog) Is there a decline in the quality of the education itself? That is, will less be learned? That is an empirical question. Educational outcomes are exactly that, outcomes. They are measured, not by interviewing people before the education is delivered about whether or not they think students will learn less, but by actually trying to craft research designed to reveal whether or not this is the case. UVM has institutionalized methods of learning outcome assessment and student satisfaction already in place that track such outcomes, and programs have assessment plans in place as well, but we won’t actually have any data for quite some time that will reflect these recent changes and those data will be proximate unless we actually develop strategies for trying to measure in a reliable and valid way, as educators, the impact of what is happening. UVM has many researchers at its disposal who could begin to do this research, but I haven’t heard anyone suggest yet that it be done.
What I continue to hear, then, is that large classes and lecturer non-reappointment is the result of budgetary cuts. That seems demonstrably untrue to me. The suggestion is that these changes will result in less learning. That seems to me an empirical question. What is clear is that the student/teacher experience in some classes will be changed. But here’s the stubborn issue that untangling these sources of change reveals. If the assumption is that larger classes necessarily produce inferior learning outcomes and the implied solution is that they be scaled back to prior size (if this is what the funding recently offered by the President to continue to insure quality is used for) by hiring more lecturers, that will necessarily require an adjustment in the expected student/faculty ratio expected of CAS because whereas the predicted number of students in the equation remains the same, the number of people teaching them will have increased. Moreover, if it is the case that a campus ratio of 16:1 is required for financial viability, then it also implies that that ratio and its distribution among the schools and colleges needs to be revisited.
That said, I would like to present some data on the CAS investment in lecturer salaries: in ’08 it was $5,109,037; in ’09 $5,653,076. Our current estimate for 09 is $5,014,801. This amount is apt to go up as first-time, first-year students begin to enroll–but probably not significantly, unless, of course, more lecturers are hired.

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