Discussing ‘How College Works’, Chapters 1 & 2

Daniel Chambliss and Chris Takacs are the authors of our current book, How College WorksThey have kindly agreed to guide our discussion. If you don’t have the book, it’s not too late! Try your campus library.

The discussion will take place on Twitter (#ChronBooks, @DanFChambliss, @ChrisGTakacs). Our other featured participants are listed to the right.


From Dan Chambliss:

In this book Chris and I have tried to be, in a word, realistic. We wanted to avoid utopian visions of what college should be (an entire genre in itself); elaborate but unworkable plans for how college employees “must” change; or simplistic views of students’ motivations and behavior (for instance, either “students are here to learn” or “students just want to slide by”. We wanted to respect students as living human beings with legitimate goals and interests of their own, not as simply passive receptacles for whatever educators would decide to pour into them – or as irresponsible adolescents who just don’t appreciate the finer things.  For instance, a surprising number of faculty we’ve encountered at various institutions seem to think that students’ concern with making friends is an annoying distraction from the real business of academic education. (But “happiness,” we would tell ourselves, “is a legitimate educational outcome!”.)  Taking seriously the students’ point of view – which is not always correct but is always worth understanding – proved to be transformative.

The “criteria for recommendations” (pp. 6-7), which took some time to develop, were decisive in the later stages of our project. On the surface, these criteria may seem fairly obvious – of course innovations should be effective! – but in practice, you might realize, they are rarely followed.  Ideas for action are often judged less by their feasibility than by their inspirational power. That matters, but it’s not the same as actually improving education.

In 1999, David Paris, then Dean of Faculty at Hamilton College, recruited me to take charge of a Mellon Foundation planning grant for liberal arts assessment. I was reluctant. He pointed out that it would be only a one-year commitment; that was the term for the initial grant (we eventually received four more). I thought for a moment and said, “If we do this thing seriously, it will take ten years.”

As it happens, David and I were both wrong. It took fifteen.


From Chris Takacs:  

One finding Dan and I kept coming back to was that what happens in students’ experiences early on in college is disproportionately important to their entire college experience. The first week, month, and year are more important than any other they will go through. Why this was the case was interesting. Two processes seemed important:

When it comes to fields of study, first impressions matter. For many students, their first experiences with particular academic fields will come in their first year. We found that students who had a bad experience in one of their introductory classes were far less likely to continue taking classes in that field, even if that field was their intended major. Good experiences mattered too, and in some cases, led students down pathways to major in fields that they knew nothing about when they entered college.

Second, when it comes to developing friendships, the “Matthew effect” is key–advantages accumulate. Students meet other students through the friends they already have, and so those who make friends early on are better positioned to meet others and expand their networks. Pre-orientation programs enhance participating students’ social chances, to some extent to the detriment of students who didn’t participate. Social groups at college begin to solidify as early as second semester, and so the panic many students feel to fit in and make friends is, to some extent, justified.

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