Ratio soars in last decade, among highest in SEC; officials say no cause for concern
Overall, USC's ratio of 14-to-1 once was exceptional among SEC institutions — it is no longer. USC is now tied with the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama near the bottom of the SEC in student-faculty ratio.
Mississippi State has a ratio of 20-to-1, the University of Florida has a ratio of 21-to-1 and Louisiana State University has a ratio of 22-to-1.
Student-faculty ratios are important factors in university rankings, such as those done by U.S. News and World Report. They see this statistic as an indicator of individual teaching and personal learning.
Of the seven SEC institutions that score higher than USC on the publication's 2012 rankings, only Auburn University has seen a similar jump in its ratio in the past 10 years.
Helen Doerpinghaus, USC's vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies, said that while the university hopes to decrease its student-faculty ratio in the future, returning to a 14-to-1 ratio would be almost impossible.
"I think 14-to-1 is almost untenable in the economic environment," Doerpinghaus said. "I don't know if you're going to see ratios like that again in the next decade almost anywhere. We're not headed there; that doesn't even seem realistic to me."
The economic downturn and accompanying state budget cuts have led USC to accept more students to bring in more tuition. Simultaneously, a lack of funds has prevented the university from hiring more faculty to keep up with its ever-growing student body. Doerpinghaus also said an increased number of faculty were reaching retirement age.
"State funding for USC is less than 10 percent of the budget, so admitting students is of course important to funding the university," Doerpinghaus said. "I think both mission and economic reality has pushed us to step up and educate more of our citizenry and admit more students, and when we have an economic downturn, faculty hiring dampens off, and we see a shift in student-faculty ratios."
Administrators have said that next year's freshman class size won't increase, and last year USC began a multiyear, multimillion-dollar initiative to hire several hundred new faculty. The hiring process places a strong emphasis on faculty who can teach undergraduates in addition to conducting research. Doerpinghaus said she didn't know how the new hires would affect the overall student-faculty ratio in the future.
Steve Orlando, spokesman for UF, said that, like USC, budget cuts have prevented UF from lowering its relatively high ratio.
"We have recognized that it should be lower, and we have made efforts to address that," Orlando said. "Trying to increase your ratio is difficult when you've lost nearly $200 million from the state legislature in the past three years."
The increase in the student-faculty ratio at USC has forced department heads throughout the university to teach more students with less staff.
Loren Knapp, assistant dean for academic affairs and advising for the College of Arts and Sciences, USC's largest division, said that even though his college has hired more faculty, it has had to increase certain class sizes. The college is relying more on discussion and lab sessions that provide more personal teacher-student interactions.
"Upper-division classes in very large majors have had to increase the number of students," Knapp said. "But even those courses have some limitations — maybe 40 or 50 students compared to 30 students in the past. In a big course like History 101, you have a bigger class of 250, but it is broken down once a week into a smaller recitation."
Knapp said his college has greatly increased the number of sections for its core classes, such as biology and chemistry, but said space for laboratory sessions is becoming increasingly limited. He said the college has increased curriculum flexibility in response to increased concerns from students who can't get into their preferred classes.
"While it is true that students want what they want, we probably can pretty securely get them what they need," Knapp said.
Carson Tolar, a second-year history and political science student at USC, said he notices the effects of increasing class sizes.
"On grading you don't get as much of a response, and emails take longer to get a response," Tolar said. "I don't know my professors as well as last year."
But Brian Rajakovich, a third-year accounting and finance student, doesn't see any change.
"Intro classes are big, but they always have been," he said.
Doerpinghaus said that new technology, such as the Internet, can help universities deal with the new paradigm of higher student-faculty ratios.
"If the 21st century says you can't go smaller than 19-to-1, we hope the 21st century technology says, 'Here's how you can be more communicative even at 19-to-1,'" Doerpinghaus said. "We have to do it better, even in the new normal. We have to."