The AIR Professional File
Fall 2019, Article 146 

Perception Isn’t Everything: The Reality of Class Size

Mark Umbricht, Kevin Stange

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Every term, institutions of higher education must make decisions about the class size for each class they offer, which can have implications for student outcomes, satisfaction, and cost. These decisions must be made within the current higher education landscape of tightening budgets and calls for increased productivity. Beyond institution decision making, prospective students and their families may use class size as one factor in deciding whether an institution might be a good fit for them. The current measure of class size found in university fact books, and subsequently sent to numerous ranking groups such as U.S. News & World Report (hereafter U.S. News), is an inadequate gauge of the student experience in the classroom, as measured by the percent of time students spend in classes of varying sizes. The current measure does not weight for enrollment, credits, or multiple components of a class, which results in a misleading representation of the student experience of class size. This paper will discuss these issues in depth, explain how class size varies across institutions, and offer recommendations on how to reweight class size in the Common Data Set to accurately describe it from the student’s perspective. Institutions could use this new metric to better understand class size, and subsequently to understand the student experience and cost of a class, while prospective students and their families could use the metric to gain a clearer picture of the class sizes they are likely to experience on campus.

Keywords: class size, productivity, student outcomes


We would like to thank Paul Courant, Ben Koester, Steve Lonn, Tim McCay, and numerous participants in seminars at the University of Michigan for helpful comments. This research was conducted as part of the University of Michigan Institutional Learning Analytics Committee. The authors are solely responsible for the conclusions and findings.

Additional Information 


Mark Umbricht, University of Michigan
Kevin Stange, University of Michigan and National Bureau of Economic Research


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