When you're looking through college profiles, you'll often find data related to the student / faculty ratio. But what exactly does the ratio mean? Is a lower ratio always better? Is a high ratio always bad?
These are not easy questions to answer. The colleges and universities with the lowest student / faculty ratios are not necessarily the schools where students will receive the most personal attention. Wealthy and prestigious schools such as Caltech and Harvard have impressive student / faculty ratios, but they are also institutions where the professors need to devote a lot of time to graduate students and research. As a result, they tend to teach fewer courses than professors at colleges that have a largely undergraduate focus.
In truth, the availability of professors and the average class size may not be very different at a research-centered university with an 8 to 1 student / faculty ratio and a teaching-centered liberal arts college with a 14 to 1 ratio. As you research schools and visit campuses, ask about more than the student / faculty ratio. Find out how big average classes are. Also learn about the opportunities for students to work with the faculty on individualized research, independent studies, and senior theses.
To learn more, read this article on the student / faculty ratio.