Are smaller class sizes always better?  We took a look at how the student-to-faculty ratio impacts retention and graduation rates.

How can you accurately assess an international applicant’s potential for academic success and persistence at your university? This is an essential question that all universities must answer, but in truth, it stops short of looking at the whole picture.

Many organizations, universities, and researchers have gone to great lengths to understand and quantify student attributes that predict success. Everything from GPA, and test scores to community involvement and sociability. Current research is helpful and necessary, but its perspective is lacking. It puts the responsibility of student success solely on the student, while in reality there are innumerable other factors that play into student success at university, such as tailored services and support or quality interactions with faculty, which are especially important for international students. The pressure on enrollment managers and admissions officers to select those best-fit international students is in many cases unwarranted, as oftentimes the best-fit factors are more dependent on the university than the student.

Take for example, results of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), an organization that assesses and promotes increased student engagement.  Its President, Muriel Howard, has emphasized the need for universities to change to meet the needs of our students, saying that “Institutions can no longer promote student success by adhering to a set of expectations for students who have historically succeeded in higher education – a model that essentially required students to adapt to a ‘higher education ideal’.”

In their most recent survey of over 700 U.S. and Canadian universities, the quality and quantity of student-to-faculty engagement was a critical factor of success for a university.

Conventional wisdom holds that the smaller the class-size the better the engagement, and thus greater chances of retention and eventual graduation. Are international students getting opportunities to interact with faculty as much as they need to? To find out we took each university’s published student-to-faculty ratio and compared it to its on-time graduation rates for international students.

We plotted graduation rates on the vertical axis and student-to-faculty ratio on the horizontal axis. As you go left to right on the graph the smaller the ratio of students to faculty. For example, in the below example, this public university (orange circles are public institutions and blue circles are private) has an international student graduation rate of 80% (above the U.S. average) and a student-to-faculty ratio of 15 (right on the U.S. average).

At first glance, it seems that lower student-to-faculty ratios are positively correlated with higher graduation rates. As you move along those trend lines, from high student-to-faculty ratio to low, you’re more likely to find universities with high graduation rates than those with low graduation rates.

INTERACTIVE: Click on the circles to see university names or click on any of the characteristics to the right to isolate institutions.

But the graph also shows those universities that are outliers. For example, take a look at the group of universities that have above average graduation rates and relatively large student-to-faculty ratios. This group, all 208 of them, has focused on things outside of having a small student-to-faculty ratio to achieve above average international graduation rates. This is where President Muriel’s remarks start to resonate.

172 of the institutions in this quadrant are public universities performing above average and against the conventional wisdom. They’re proving that student engagement isn’t a result of just one metric but that of what the NSSE stresses in its report: Having environments adapted for educational enrichment. Turns out, just as the NSSE found, universities have an opportunity outside the traditional classroom setting to impact engagement and success. This allows universities that may not be able to support an ideal student-to-faculty ratio an opportunity to engage students through other means.

To analyze the dataset yourself, we encourage you to check out the interactive visualization in our <a style=”font-size: inherit;” href=”correlation-of-student-to-faculty-ratios-to-graduation-rates.html” target=”_blank”>Global Intelligence Library here</a>. &nbsp;For many other visualizations and interactive maps, check out the rest of our <a href=”global-analytics-suite_oldtest.html” target=”_blank”>analytics library here</a>.

Note: The data within the visualization include international students who are full-time degree seeking, undergraduate, and include only Public and Private four-year or above institutions.