Digest No. 01 - November 2016

Connecting in Class? College Class Size and Inequality in Academic Social Capital

Beattie, I.R., and M. Thiele. 2016. “Connecting in Class? College Class Size and Inequality in Academic Social Capital.” The Journal of Higher Education, 87, 332–362.


Irenee R. Beattie and Megan Thiele ask an important question: Does class size affect the academic interactions of students of color and first-generation students? They posit that larger classes hinder student interactions focused on academic and career matters with professors and peers. Beattie and Thiele view such interactions as forms of academic social capital. Social capital constitutes a resource that individuals acquire through their interactions and relationships with other individuals within one’s social network.
Beattie and Thiele examine three types of interactions with professors and peers that foster student success: interactions regarding course material and/or assignments, interactions about future careers, and discussions of ideas from readings or classes. Grades, satisfaction, and confidence increase with peer and faculty member interactions regarding course material and assignments (Anaya and Cole 2001; Kuh 1995). Post-college career success may result because of interactions with faculty members and peers regarding future careers. Discussions of ideas resulting from readings or classes with faculty members and peers may enhance student learning and critical thinking (Arum and Roksa 2011; Kuh 1995). These types of interactions or forms of social capital constitute hallmarks of the educational experience at CIC member institutions. The types of student success that may result from such forms of social capital also mirror the desired outcomes of attending CIC member colleges and universities.

The three types of interactions with professors and peers were measured using items from a survey titled “Social Interactions and Academic Opportunities (SIAO) Survey.” The survey was administered online in spring 2011 to a random sample of 403 undergraduate students at a public research university. The analytical sample consisted of 346 survey respondents who attended classes during the fall 2010 semester. On such important student characteristics as race/ethnicity and first-generation status, this sample was representative of the student population at the university where this research took place.


Beattie and Thiele used a series of logistic regression analyses to determine the influence of class size on the types of academic interactions or forms of social capital previously described above. The authors controlled for various factors that also might account for such student academic interactions above and beyond the influence of class size.

Class size negatively affects student interactions with faculty concerning course material or assignments regardless of their race-ethnicity or first-generation status. Nevertheless, the findings suggest students of color and first-generation college students experience inequalities in social capital. These inequalities may occur in academic interactions such as discussing ideas from class and career plans with faculty or peers. More specifically, class size negatively affects academic interactions of first-generation college students in the form of discussing ideas from class with professors. For African American students, class size also negatively influences discussions with faculty about career plans. For interactions with peers concerning career plans, class size negatively affects such interactions for Latino students.


Although the pattern of findings of this study was derived from a sample of students in a public research university, the results, nevertheless, hold implications for CIC member institutions. Because of enduring patterns of social inequality experienced by first-generation students and students of color, they enter college with lower levels of self-esteem and academic self-confidence needed to engage in academic interactions with faculty members and student peers. Put differently, pre-existing inequalities in social capital of the classroom prevail regardless of institutional size or type.

Thus, the inequalities in how class size affects students of color and first-generation status signals a policy alarm for CIC member institutions. CIC colleges and universities should consider establishing an upper limit on class size. Given that Beattie and Thiele found that the likelihood of discussing class material and assignments with faculty substantially decreases as class size rises from 60 to 150 students, CIC institutions should consider a policy of setting an upper limit of 60 students for most classes offered at the college.

Increasing class size presents a tantalizing opportunity to decrease instructional costs. But increasing class size leads to a decrease in the types of academic interactions engaged in by students, which in turn, hinders their achievement of desired outcomes by attending a CIC college or university such as course learning and increased critical thinking abilities. CIC member colleges and universities experiencing enrollment and revenue declines need to be mindful of the hidden consequences of increasing class size for students in general and for first-generation and students of color in particular.


There are two categories of literature that readers may wish to consult to further their understanding of class size related both to students of color and to first-generation students. One category includes the references cited in this article review and the other category includes a reference that provides readers with an understanding of the effects of class size.


Anaya, G., and D.G. Cole. 2001. “Latina/o Student Achievement: Exploring the Influence of Student-Faculty Interactions on College Grades.” Journal of College Student Development, 42(1), 3–14.

Arum R., and J. Roksa. 2011. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Kuh, G. 1995. “The Other Curriculum: Out-of-Class Experiences Associated with Student Learning and Personal Development.” The Journal of Higher Education, 66(2), 123–155.


Pascarella, E.T., and E.T. Terenzini. 2005. How College Affects Students: Volume 2: A Third Decade of Research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Especially pp. 94–95.Beattie, I.R., and M. Thiele. 2016. “Connecting in Class? College Class Size and Inequality in Academic Social Capital.” The Journal of Higher Education, 87, 332–362.