Estimated Class Sizes: More Than 90 National Universities

Editor’s note: Last updated on September 15, 2019.

Parents and prospective students are often interested in the average size of course sections. Assessing class size is extremely difficult because, first, a “class” has to be defined. Why is that difficult?

Some main sections (often in intro science, economics, business, etc.) may be very large, well in excess of 100 students, but the breakout labs and discussion sections are much smaller. Should  only the main section be counted, or should the labs and discussion sections also be included?

The best source for class size information and interesting data in general is the Common Data Set. Some universities publish their submissions, while others do not. The data in the CDS are used by U.S. News for many purposes, including the calculation of the percentage of classes with fewer than 20 students and the percentage of classes with more than 50 students. Using that information, we can also calculate the percentage of classes with enrollments between 20 and 50 students.

U.S. News does not include tutorials, thesis research, lab or discussion sections, and neither do we in our estimates of class sizes for honors programs. According to our counts, the average public university honors-only class section has 17.54 students. When we include honors credit classes that also have non-honors students, the overall average class size is 24.9 students. Both of these numbers are better than in 2016. This is an important consideration, given that the tables below show that public universities as a whole have significantly larger class sizes, and several have increased over 2016.

The next level of difficulty when using U.S. News data is to plug in an average number for the three class size groupings. For the group of fewer than 20 students, we are using an average of 17.5 students per section; for the group of classes with 20-50 students, we are using an average of 35 students; and for the group of classes with more than 50 students, we are using an average of 110 students.

The table below shows the percentage of classes in each size category along with the increase or decrease in the overall class size average since 2016. Universities are in rank order according to lowest estimated overall class size in 2020.

Class Sizes 2020
University% <20% >50% 20 to 50% <5020202016Difference
Johns Hopkins73.6917.49128.8729.9-1.03
Boston College48.6645.49430.99531.15-0.155
Notre Dame61.91028.19031.667532.35-0.6825
Carnegie Mellon66.41221.68832.3831.8750.505
Wash U63.91224.18832.817531.71.1175
U of Miami50.1940.99132.982531.91.0825
Boston Univ6212268833.1533.5-0.35
Geo Washington52.81136.28934.0132.5251.485
Florida St56.61231.48834.09541.225-7.13
Case Western59.11327.98734.407533.90.5075
North Carolina38.41249.68837.2839.425-2.145
Georgia Tech45.31440.78637.572546.925-9.3525
UC Berkeley5319288139.97535.9254.05
NC State34.61649.48440.94542.85-1.905
South Carolina3717468341.27540.1751.1
Arizona State37.91844.18241.867541.3250.5425
Penn State3117528342.32539.62.725
UC Irvine53.22323.87742.9439.853.09
Rutgers New Bruns41.62137.47943.4743.350.12
Illinois Chicago34.52045.58043.962542.4251.5375
Oregon St31.42048.68044.50545.675-1.17
Iowa St2920518044.92547.575-2.65
Washington St32.62146.47945.04544.450.595
Virginia Tech27.42250.67846.70545.11.605
U at Buffalo SUNY29.32347.77747.122543.73.4225
Stony Brook SUNY3625397547.4542.1255.325
UT Austin37.62636.47447.9247.2750.645
Michigan State23.82353.27748.08548.8-0.715
Colorado St26.62449.47648.34541.856.495
UC Davis36.22934.87150.41549.1251.29
Ohio State26.62746.47350.59546.254.345
Texas A&M21.42751.67351.50550.650.855
Mean Averages49.835814.978235.142384.978237.545037.41350.1314

Ah, the Choices–Private Elite, Liberal Arts, Public Honors: One Family’s Story

Editor’s Note: This article comes from Jason Rose, an Illinois attorney with two extremely bright children, one now a freshman and the other a high school senior. What Jason has to say is especially relevant to families with highly-qualified students and with incomes that leave them in the infamous “donut hole” when it comes to financial aid. What to do when that elite college waitlist notice arrives, or even a rejection or two, despite a 34 ACT and 4.7 HSGPA?

As many parents know, this is the range when anything can happen: your child could do well at any university in the English-speaking world, but the capricious nature of elite admissions today makes acceptance unlikely for all but a fortunate few. Jason’s family’s story also provides an insightful look into the ways the winnowing process works–what students think they want is likely to change, especially with the all-important college visits. And the money–it’s hard to know what you’re willing to pay until that coveted acceptance doesn’t come with much, or any, aid. Now for Jason’s story…

My family in a nutshell: I am a 49 year old husband and parent of two teenagers: an 18-year-old daughter, Tori, (currently a freshman at a college to be named at the end of this article) and a 17-year-old son, Jake, (currently a high school senior).

Our goals: Helping guide Tori and Jake through the college admissions process without driving them, my wife, or myself crazy. Figuring out a way to make college relatively affordable. Figuring out what’s important and what’s NOT. In other words, what to sweat and what to let slide.

Tori (in a nutshell): While excelling in debate and orchestra in high school, Tori is a natural writer, researcher, and future politician. Voted most opinionated by her classmates, Tori is not interested in partying, at least not yet anyway. Although at times anxious, Tori is warm and friendly with those whom she is comfortable with. An eager learner who is well liked by her teachers, perhaps a future lawyer, professor or political wonk. For now, a likely English or Political Science major.

Issues: Attending a powerhouse public high school in an affluent suburb in northern Illinois, observers can almost believe that every student is a superstar (either academically, athletically, or in extra-curriculars) and that every family has a money tree in their backyard. While ideal in some respects, this sort of enriched environment often makes parents and their children a bit neurotic and ultra-competitive.

The Plan: Panic. No, just kidding. Read and research every admissions book and blog, every well known website, and every major college ranking service. My favorite websites were Niche, College Confidential, and Public University Honors. My favorite book about the various colleges was the venerable Fiske Guide to Colleges, which does an excellent job of going beyond the numbers and provides the reader with a feel for over 350 colleges. Later, during Tori’s senior year, I discovered the recently published book, A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs, which is the definitive book in the industry regarding the strengths of the various honors programs.

Junior Year: We visited many schools during Tori’s junior year so that we could get a feel for them all. During the visits, we quickly realized that each school has its own distinctive personality. During her junior year, Tori took the ACT multiple times, since we knew that an additional point could make the difference between getting in and getting rejected by a top school (or of getting scholarship money or not). By the end of her junior year, Tori had scored a 34 on her ACT and was sitting with a 4.7 weighted Grade Point Average, making her a very attractive candidate for most schools.

But without a hook (meaning that Tori was neither an athlete nor a legacy nor an underrepresented minority), we knew that entrance into the elite private schools was no sure thing. And even if Tori were to be accepted into a top private school, we were still not sure whether that was the best way to go.

As a quirky, intellectual type, Tori initially thought she would prefer a liberal arts school where she would benefit from close interaction with dedicated professors, small class sizes and a nurturing administration. We started by touring several fabulous liberal arts colleges on the east coast and in the Midwest, including Wellesley, Brandeis, Wesleyan, Carleton and Macalester; a few popular midsized schools (Boston University, Tulane University); and a few elite academic powerhouses (Yale, Brown, Northwestern University, University of Chicago).

What we learned during each visit is that each school had a distinct personality. Sometimes it came from the way the students interacted with each other or from the way the admissions officers would go through their spiels. Wherever it came from, it was palpable, something you could just feel.

But a funny thing happened during our search….after 5 or 10 visits, Tori realized that she was attracted to colleges in major cities. This was a major monkey in the wrench, since most of schools in major cities were typically larger, research powerhouses, while many of the best liberal arts colleges were in idyllic small towns, often far from any major city.

Senior Year (First Semester): By the beginning of Tori’s senior year, we thought that we were well prepared for the year ahead and the upcoming admissions process. At this point, Tori’s college list was in serious transition. Several colleges in major cities were added (welcome University of Minnesota, University of Pittsburgh, University of Texas at Austin, Rice University, Washington University at St.Louis and Emory University, among others) while the original target liberal arts colleges, which had at first appeared to be a wonderful fit, dropped out of the picture one by one. With the inclusion of several larger public schools, I began to look into the honors programs at Texas-Austin, Minnesota and Boston University.

Fortunately, two of the public schools on Tori’s list (Minnesota and Pittsburgh) had rolling admissions, which meant that Tori would receive acceptances from these schools in a matter of weeks. Knowing that Tori had acceptances from two very good schools early in the process (with scholarships from both schools) reduced the collective stress somewhat.

Meanwhile, I created color-coded charts listing the various application and scholarship deadlines and Tori got to work on her common application essay and the various mini-essays which the various colleges would require. By the end of the 2014, Tori had applied to twelve colleges, more than most students but not an extreme number, at least from our perspective. In our case, the number was appropriate since Tori was applying to several elite colleges with shrinking accepting rates and because Tori was not yet willing to limit herself to just one area of the country.

The net was also relatively wide since we had still not talked much as a family about exactly how much money had been saved and how much money might have to be borrowed in the future. Admittedly, the matter of how to fund college for two students was something that probably should have been discussed much earlier in the process.

Senior Year (Second Semester): Tori applied to one school early action, Yale. Deferred…which meant that we would not know until the end of March whether she would be admitted to Yale and the other elite schools that she applied to. While some students already had acceptances in hand to their dream schools, we could tell that Tori’s second semester would be stressful as we awaited decisions from most of the schools that she applied to.

The various reactions to Tori’s deferral from Yale were particularly interesting. In some cases, people would ask us “Is Tori o.k?”, sensing that Tori might be disappointed by the deferral and knowing that the odds for Tori to get in were not great. Others, however, would get excited and say “that’s amazing,” knowing that the Ivy league was just a pipe dream for most students and that most students would not have the grades and test scores to even contemplate attending an Ivy league school.

By February and March, the results started to roll in. Tori would eventually be accepted by 9 of the 12 schools that she applied to, with one school offering her a spot on the waitlist and two Ivy league schools (Yale and Brown) rejecting her. The schools that accepted Tori ran the geographic gamut, in the Midwest, South and along the eastern seaboard. Several of the schools were excellent public research universities (Texas, Minnesota, Pittsburgh), but Tori also was accepted into several smaller elite private schools, including Rice, Emory, Tulane, Washington University (“WUSTL”) and Boston University.

Decision Time: During our visit last fall to St. Louis, Tori had fallen in love with WUSTL, and when she was accepted, Tori was starting to see herself as spending her next four years there. But when the various financial aid packages came rolling in, we were quickly seeing that our family fell into the so-called donut (where families are relatively well off but not so wealthy that they could afford to pay $50,000-65,000 per year to have their child attend college). Some of these schools in fact were willing to work with us, but reductions of $5,000-10,000/year (while certainly substantial) only made a dent on the four year cost of an education.

Meanwhile, a weekend trip to Texas (to see Texas-Austin and Rice) was changing the list of favorites. In particular, Tori became enamored during her Texas trip not only with the city of Austin but also with UT’s Plan II Honors Program, which was widely regarded as being one of the very best honors programs in the country. The venerable but outstanding Fiske Guide to Colleges had touted Plan II as being one of the nation’s most renowned programs and also one of the best values in the country…at least for students in Texas who would pay in-state tuition. Additionally, A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs had also listed Plan II as being one of the very best honors programs in the country. But would out-of-state tuition push UT-Austin into the group with some of the other excellent, but ultimately unaffordable options.

At this point, the focus went towards some of the schools that had offered Tori sizable scholarships, most notably Tulane and Pittsburgh. Another trip to New Orleans impressed but did not lead to a commitment. This would be a decision that would go down to the wire.

The Decision: With May Day soon approaching, Tori decided that she wanted to go to Austin and that she wanted to take advantage of Plan II’s interdisciplinary curriculum. This, frankly, was a bit of a shocker because Tori is more of an intellectual than a sports fan. Most people who knew her expected Tori to select a smaller school, not a major research university with 50,000 students known at least somewhat for its prowess in the various major sports. At this point, we reached out to Texas to see if there was any possibility of receiving a Non-Resident Tuition Exemption (“NRTE”). NRTEs are in short supply at Texas-Austin, but most of the various departments at UT (Engineering, Business, Plan II) have a limited number of NRTE each year. In this case, we explained that while Tori would love to attend Texas-Austin, an NRTE would be needed to turn this dream into a reality.

Just days before May Day, we received the word from UT-Austin: Tori would be extended a small scholarship, which would be linked to an NRTE. Tori would be heading to Austin, Texas.

The Aftermath: So how’s it going so far? Two months into the school year, Tori is making new friends, enjoying her new environment, the honors dormitories at UT, and the improved climate–and excelling in the classroom. There will certainly be stressful days ahead and obstacles to overcome but at this point it looks like Tori absolutely made the right decision for herself. But I can’t spend too much time mulling over the past year: our second child, Jake, is now a high school senior and so we are going over a new set of options with a new set of decisions to be made.

Honors Program as Innovative Influence: UW-Eau Claire Welcomes New Approach to Nursing Ed

Editor’s Note: The following story comes to us from UW-Eau Claire, and the author is Shari Lau…Honors programs often provide resources and support for course development that benefits the whole university.

Becoming an effective nurse is about more than mastering technical skills in a lab. It’s about understanding people and connecting with them to individualize their care.

Dr. Cheryl Lapp, professor of nursing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, believes her responsibility as a teacher is to prepare the next generation of nurses to see patients as people first. That’s why she created a University Honors Program course titled “Empathy Enhancement for the Helping Professions.”

The College of Nursing and Health Sciences recently presented Lapp with the 2015 Suzanne Van Ort Award for Creativity and Scholarliness for her development of the course, which uses an innovative teaching strategy focusing on theater applications.

To learn more about the “Empathy Enhancement for the Helping Professions” Honors course and Lapp’s relationship with the University Honors Program, read the Q&A below.

Q&A with Dr. Cheryl Lapp, professor of nursing

Can you describe the “Empathy Enhancement for the Helping Professions” Honors course?
This is a course I designed using theater applications to help students examine and experience empathy in face-to-face human situations that feel authentic, yet do not violate confidentiality. Theater and artistic expression can provide an intense experience for which you are present in the moment. It can also provide the immediacy of an emotional connection with an actor in a personal way, or collectively, in the context of the audience experience. Everyone knows that seeing something performed is not real life, but when done effectively, there is a “suspension of disbelief” that makes the emotional or intellectual connection very real.

In the course, we begin by learning about how empathy connects us with other people. Together we visit Dr. Jennifer Chapman in the department of music and theatre arts and do some exercises analyzing what another person may want, what obstacles may stand in the way and which strategies the other person is using to get what is wanted. Through this exploration, we all learn a little more about ourselves and our own human responses.

In the latter part of the course we also spend some time exploring communication techniques that we can carry with us into our various professions. We become aware of skills like listening more astutely, being more present in the moment, becoming more comfortable with silence and through being intentionally curious, we can all learn to refrain from making premature assumptions or taking sides. I like to leave the students feeling as though they’ve developed some tools that will foster and enhance their own capacity for empathy.

What inspired you to create this course?
I was inspired to create this course when I read an article about the “empathy enigma,” and upon further exploration, I found ample evidence in the literature documenting that empathy declines in nursing and medical students over time and with experience. This was startling to me as a nurse educator, and when listening to my graduate students in classroom discussions, I could often detect a hardening attitude in some of them about the very populations for whom we need to be advocating. I decided to make the examination of empathy in professional life the focus of my sabbatical project.

Early in my sabbatical, I became more inspired by reading the empathy-related research of a psychologist working with medical students at another university. I actually set up a telephone consultation and asked if I could observe a class session. To make a long story short, I ended up traveling to California and was invited to help facilitate a class of medical students blended with senior citizens. One of our strategies involved reading selected theater scenes with the students and senior citizens, followed by reflection and discussion of perspectives of both patient and provider. The senior participants influenced all of us to think and feel differently about situations as a result of sharing their life-informed wisdom. For me, this encounter sparked a powerful and enduring foundation for my work.

What does receiving the Suzanne Van Ort Award for Creativity and Scholarliness for your work in developing this course mean to you?
It means a great deal to receive this award from the nursing department. It demonstrates appreciation for my efforts to directly influence our ability to connect with people, and thus improve the hallmark of our practice, which is caring. The award’s recognition for course development in the University Honors Program also demonstrates the nursing department’s support of interdisciplinary work, as this offering was designed for Honors students across campus who see themselves in any helping profession, not only nursing.

What does it mean to you to have the opportunity to create a course such as this as part of the Honors program?
This opportunity is a rare gift. It’s like a dream come true for any teacher to have the chance to create an interdisciplinary course about something one is personally interested in, committed to or has a passion for, especially when it may not directly address an essential component of existing curriculum. It is a real pleasure to have been granted this unique opportunity that the University Honors Program offers.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

As one result of this exploration, I value curiosity more than ever. I see myself as a learner, always. And looking back on this first class of students, I’ll be forever amazed by the depth of personal insight that they were prepared to share with one another.

Arkansas Honors College Students Publish in Peer-Reviewed Journals

Editor’s note: The following article is from the University of Arkansas. My thanks to Kendall Curless of the Honors College for sending it along.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas have established that pits and scratches on the teeth of mammal fossils give important clues to the diet of creatures that lived millions of years ago. Two new studies, both involving undergraduate Honors College students, analyze the effect of environmental change on the teeth of existing species, and may shed light on the evolutionary fossil record.

Peter Ungar, Distinguished Professor and chair of the anthropology department, mentored the students and is a coauthor on both papers.

Both studies compare dental wear of species in environments that are relatively undisturbed to those in environments that have been disturbed by human development.

“Human disturbance, from an ecological perspective, is not a great thing, but for folks like me, they’re really cool natural experiments,” Peter Ungar said. “If we can understand the reaction of living animals, including primates, to environmental change, then we can apply that to the past, to understand evolution. Conversely, we can use our understanding of how things change on evolutionary time scales to get a better appreciation for our effects on the environment today.”

Tracking Lemurs in Madagascar

The paper “Mechanical food properties and dental topography differentiate three populations of Lemur catta in southwest Madagascar” was recently accepted by the Journal of Human Evolution, the premier journal in the field.

Emily Fitzgerald (B.A. in anthropology, magna cum laude, ’12) and Andrea Riemenschneider (B.A. in anthropology, cum laude, ’13), who were undergraduate honors students at the time, used data collected in Madagascar by Frank Cuozzo and Michelle Sauther. Since 2003 Cuozzo and Sauther have caught and made molds of the teeth of ring-tailed lemurs across a variety of habitats.

Building on research by first author Nayuta Yamashita, Fitzgerald and Riemenschneider made high-resolution casts of the molds, then used a laser scanner to make 3-D models of the teeth, which they analyzed using global-information system software. Their findings confirmed different patterns of wear in different settings.

Lemurs in disturbed areas were most heavily impacted, wearing their teeth “down to nubbins – we’re not entirely sure why,” Ungar said. This finding could help scientists interpret wear-related tooth shape changes more generally.

ComparinG Capuchin and Howler Monkeys in the Brazilian Amazon

In “Environmental Perturbations Can be Detected Through Microwear Texture Analysis in Two Platyrrhine Species From Brazilian Amazonia,” recently published in the American Journal of Primatology, Almudena Estalrrich, a doctoral exchange student from Spain, and Mariel Williams Young (B.A. in anthropology and Spanish, magna cum laude, with a minor in psychology, ’13), then an undergraduate Honors College student, analyzed the effects of habitat variation on capuchin and howler monkeys.

Each species was sampled from environments ranging from minimally disturbed to an area that had been deforested with the construction of a hydroelectric dam.

Young used a confocal microscope to zoom in on a very small part of the tooth – the wear area where the upper and lower teeth come into contact. The team predicted that capuchins, which eat nuts and berries, would be more impacted by environmental disturbance than howler monkeys, which eat leaves.

Their findings confirmed this prediction, and established that dental microwear texture analysis is an effective tool to detect subtle differences in diets among living primates. Studies like this one, which use well-documented specimens with differences in habitats, suggest that subtle changes in microwear may shed light on habitat-forced diet changes in the fossil record.

Peter Ungar has worked with dozens of Honors College students in the past 20 years, and several have published their undergraduate research in peer-reviewed journals.

“Honors students are bread and butter for me,” Ungar said. “I couldn’t get done what I get done, research-wise, without their help.”

“It feels great to have a publication early in my career,” said Mariel Young, who completed a master’s degree in human evolutionary studies at Cambridge and is now pursuing a doctoral degree in human evolutionary biology at Harvard. Young was awarded the Gates Cambridge Scholarship and NSF Graduate Fellowship, and credits her success to research with Ungar: “These two awards have had a huge impact on my career, and my initial research at U of A in Dr. Ungar’s lab is definitely what set me on the path toward achieving them.”

“We’re very proud of these three alumni, and pleased that, yet again, undergraduate thesis research conducted by our Honors College students has been published in top journals,” said Lynda Coon, dean of the Honors College.

About the Honors College: The University of Arkansas Honors College was established in 2002 and unites the university’s top undergraduate students and professors in a learning environment characterized by discovery, creativity and service. Each year the Honors College awards up to 90 freshman fellowships that provide $70,000 over four years, and more than $1 million in undergraduate research and study abroad grants. The Honors College is nationally recognized for the high caliber of students it admits and graduates. Honors students enjoy small, in-depth classes, and programs are offered in all disciplines, tailored to students’ academic interests, with interdisciplinary collaborations encouraged. One hundred percent of Honors College graduates have engaged in mentored research.