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Bad Statistics Keep Re-appearing

When you show a misleading statistic the door at the College, it often returns via the window. A recent College press release included the following:

In 2009-10, 63 percent of classes enrolled 19 students or fewer, while only 8 percent enrolled 50 or more.

As we have pointed out before, this figure is a textbook example of a statistic that confuses rather than enlightens. At first glance, students might assume that almost two thirds of their classes at the College will have 19 students or less. Wrong. Here is the distribution of the number of students in courses of varying sizes. (As always, these statistics are from the Dartmouth Fact Book.):

Student Enrollments by Class Size 2009-2010

2-19 students: 12,414 (33%)
20-29 students: 6,323 (17%)
30-39 students: 5,014 (13%)
40-49 students: 3,828 (10%)
50+ students: 10,446 (27%)

The College’s 63% statistic is valid from only one perspective: describing for faculty members the size of classes that they will likely teach. However, as the above table indicates, students will find that only 33% of the classes that they take during an academic year have <19 students. That's a significant difference. (And 37% of the classes that an average student takes will have >40 students.)

In an institution devoted to rigorous academic inquiry, it is time to end these PR-driven pitches. While they might fool some of the people, the faculty and other acute observers see them as evidence of a lack of seriousness — let alone honesty.

Addendum: Giving credit where credit is due, it seems that the total number of courses taught at the College is on the rise:

Total Number of Classes Offered 2009-2010

2005-2006: 1,587
2006-2007: 1,653
2007-2008: 1,645
2008-2009: 1,685
2009-2010: 1,704

That said, word has gotten back to me that the latter figure should drop appreciably for the 2010-2011 year.


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