Discussing ‘How College Works,’ Chapter 5

Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, the authors of our current book, How College Works, have 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 at the right.


From Dan Chambliss:

Effective colleges are multigoal membership institutions, not producers of a single consumer commodity. They aim to integrate students into wide networks of people and activities that offer a host of educational opportunities. The best colleges succeed in doing so. Although smaller colleges may find it easier to produce that sense of membership, even the largest aspire to it: “Be a Longhorn,” prospective University of Texas students are told; “Welcome, new Ducks!” proclaims the University of Oregon’s website.

In Chapter 5, we try to describe how membership—“belonging”—comes about through fairly well-understood social processes of physical congregation, clear focuses of attention, and regular ceremonial activities. Some settings work better than others, but the general principles can be employed all across a campus.

The diagram on Page 93 is the only graphic in the entire book; we had to persuade our publisher to include it. The diagram shows that students in certain activities enjoy network advantages in meeting people and being well connected to their institution. Those students, we found, are more likely to enjoy college and succeed there academically. “Certain activities,” in this case, include singing in the choir and being a writing-center tutor, both of which introduce participants to scores of other students. At other colleges, different activities no doubt prevail.


From Chris Takacs:

The “social life” of college students is regularly maligned by education researchers, faculty members, and administrators alike. Considered a distraction from academic work, “social life” is used as a kind of blanket term that encompasses a range of student behavior—everything from huge parties to hanging out in a dormitory room with a friend.

The term means something different to students. For most students in our study, “social life” meant parties, plain and simple. Students regularly complained about the lack of social life on the campus—the parties were always in the same place, with the same people.

But it was clear to us that it wasn’t just parties that mattered to students. There was an entire range of background socializing going on that was so taken for granted it wasn’t really even acknowledged. Students constantly talked about their friends, roommates, dormmates, classmates, and teammates in interviews, and it became clear to us that there were many layers to students’ social worlds, and understanding them was important.

In Chapter 5 we address several of those layers, examining students’ social networks (who they know, and how well), the campus community as a whole and what it means to “belong” to it, and clusters of students (“micro-communities”) that form around particular organizations, dorms, and sports. We were interested in understanding what, if anything, students’ social lives contributed to their college experience, as well as their academic and intellectual lives.

We found that students who had a few close friends, a faculty mentor (or something approaching a mentoring relationship), and a broader network of acquaintances (not close friends, but people you say hi to, know by name, and talk to now and then) were far more likely to report having a rewarding college experience. They also tended to be more academically engaged, especially when they developed a mentoring relationship with a professor.

Social life isn’t all about parties and drinking, nor is it all a distraction from academics. For students, having a baseline social life at college keeps them emotionally engaged, and provides them with the day-to-day motivation to both persist at college and thrive in it. Certainly, many students put their social life ahead of academics. However, the solution isn’t to dismiss social life altogether, but instead to distinguish between what in students’ social lives is destructive to their college experience and academics, and what can be productive, or even vital to it.

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