• Interview
  • 12.09.21

The Importance of Class Size: An Interview with Mark Umbricht

  • by Mark Umbricht, Director of Data Analysis and Research, University of North Carolina System

AIR talked to Mark Umbricht, Director of Data Analysis and Research at University of North Carolina System, to chat about how his 2018 AIR Forum session was referenced in Ron Lieber’s book, The Price You Pay for College. We also discuss the importance of class size and what those in IR can do now to provide more clarity for potential students.

Q: Were you aware that your 2018 AIR Forum session was referenced in Ron Lieber’s book, The Price You Pay for College?

A: Yes, I was aware my 2018 AIR Forum session was referenced in the book. After the conference, Ron reached out to me to ask a few follow-up questions and even sent me a copy of the book just before it came out.

Q: Were you aware Ron was in the audience at your breakout session?

A: I was actually not aware that Ron was present at my session. I also have to thank my colleague, Steve Lonn, who had dinner with Ron and plugged the class size work I’ve been doing with my co-author, Kevin Stange. The combination of the session and the dinner left quite an impression on him.

Q: Why is this conversation on class size important?

A: A quick story, when my wife was a freshman in college, she was randomly approached by a visiting prospective student and their parent. The parent asked how many classes with over 100 students she had, and she responded two. The concerned parent then asked how many were under 30 students, and she replied only one. The parent was shocked that all of my wife’s courses were not under 30 students because they were just told the average class size was under 30. For prospective families, class size is often considered a proxy for quality and having a quality experience in the classroom is highly desirable. Whether that’s true is an entirely different conversation but having small class sizes could be the determining factor for some students and their families.

For institutions, how to deliver courses is a key operational decision. While every institution may want to have class sizes of ten for every course, this is impossible financially and logistically. Institutions must play a precarious balancing act between offering small classes that provide ample opportunity for interaction and larger courses that are more cost and space effective. Covid has added another layer of complexity to this issue, as colleges struggle to determine how many students can safely be taught in rooms of varying sizes across their campuses. In recent years, budgets have become tighter, appropriations have fallen, and competition for students has become fiercer, making these decisions even more complex and vital to the success of colleges and universities. 

Q: What can those in IR do now—in lieu of more sweeping changes led by ranking bodies or government agencies—to provide more clarity on class size for potential students?

A: I believe IR offices could share data with their admissions offices about the student experience in the classroom. If class size is weighted by the number of students in the class and the number of hours associated with the class, we get a much clearer view of the amount of time students spend in the classroom. These pieces of data are already used to calculate class size, so it would be relatively easy to create a student experience version of class size.  

As we explain in our AIR Professional Files article, “Perception Isn’t Everything: The Reality of Class Size,” there are two difficulties with this new metric. The new metric will be perceived as worse for many institutions, and the difference between the two metrics is subtle for prospective students and families. That is why I believe this information would be best in the hands of admissions staff, who speak with students one-on-one or in smaller groups and can explain the difference. They can explain how their school offers many small courses (as shown by the old metric) but that students will spend their time in a variety of class sizes (as shown by the new metric). The last thing we want is to have students feel that they have been given a bait and switch on classroom experience. 

Q: Can you give us a brief overview of the research?

A: Kevin Stange and I used administrative data over the past ten years to examine how changes in class size affect a number of course outcomes and costs. We found minimal association between class size and course grade, grade in subsequent courses, or student evaluations, which contrasts to several previous studies. Surprisingly, increasing class size was associated with higher evaluation scores for topics such as “instructor was willing to meet outside of class” and “instructor encouraged participation equitably,” which is counterintuitive. We did find that increasing class size was related to significantly lower costs for courses below 200 students. Above 200 students, courses often pair lectures with a smaller lab or discussion section, so adding extra students often means adding another section, which dampens cost savings.

Unfortunately, none of my 2021 AIR Forum sessions mentioned this work. Please look up my sessions if you’re interested in 1) the relationship between transfer credit, time-to-degree, and degree cost, 2) sources of post-graduation outcomes data, or 3) lessons learned in harmonizing data from seven institutions.

Q: What else did we not ask that is important? What else do you want to share?

A: One of the most important things we can stress to prospective students is that you will be in a variety of classroom settings at most institutions. You will probably have some large classes and some small ones, but it is good to have a variety of classroom experiences. Good instructors will know how to engage students regardless of the size. One of the most engaging courses I had as an undergrad was an 80-person psychology lecture. The instructor did an incredible job of using clickers and small group discussions to engage the classroom and get students to interact with one another. 

It’s also important to note that large institutions with very large lectures often pair the lectures with smaller experiences like labs or discussion groups. This way, students receive most of their information through the lecture but still have time to interact with their peers and instructor in a smaller setting. In short, large class sizes do not necessarily mean poor experiences. 

Q: Can you share a fun fact about yourself—something the AIR community doesn’t know?

A: I was the president of my high school’s juggling club (yes, we had one of those).

Mark UmbrichtMark Umbricht, Director of Data Analysis and Research, University of North Carolina System

Mark leads data analysis and research efforts for the Division of Strategy and Policy at the UNC System, providing data-driven decision support for system-level initiatives and policy decisions. He previously worked at the University of Michigan conducting research and using data analytics to support decision-making and improve student success. Mark studies a wide variety of topics in higher education including policy, finance, and student success. He holds a PhD in Higher Education from the Pennsylvania State University.