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Discussing ‘How College Works,’ Chapters 7 and 8

Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, the authors of our current book, How College Works, have agreed to guide our discussion.

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

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From Dan Chambliss:

Colleges are human institutions, with all the messiness and adaptability that living creatures bring with them. The best colleges realize this and operate accordingly.

But lots of reformers would have colleges narrow themselves to a few preset goals pursued through abstractly designed programs: college as a rationally engineered machine, pumping information into passively accepting students. We think that such strategies dessicate higher education, robbing it of its intrinsic vitality and destroying some of its most valuable outcomes.

Our recommendations—designed to be completely realistic, not at all utopian or “visionary”—rest on our findings about how students actually make decisions, how student and staff motivations actually rise and fall, and how colleges actually get results. They work.

Our message, in a sentence: What matters most is who meets whom, and when.

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From Chris Takacs:

We end How College Works with a discussion of the wide variety of outcomes students leave college with. Our view can be stated fairly simply: College produces many different kinds of outcomes for students, and the evaluation of college education should not be limited to a narrow few. We suggest a handful of outcomes that, based on our research, deserve more attention: student satisfaction, confidence, happiness, friendships, and social networks, along with a few others.

Those seemed to be the most important, according to students themselves seven or eight years after they graduated. Given the vast array of types of colleges that exist, there are no doubt many other unexamined outcomes that are relevant to broader discussions of higher education. This is, we think, one of the great strengths of contemporary college education: It doesn’t just produce one benefit for a given student; it can produce many.

We readily admit that studying outcomes such as those can be difficult, both methodologically and conceptually. It isn’t really possible to count and compare people’s “units” of happiness in the way you can compare their incomes. Confidence isn’t as categorical a variable as employment status. And motivation is a slippery concept that is difficult to quantify.

That said, some of those “alternative” outcomes may be easier to study than it seems. For example, social-network analysis, which is quickly being integrated into numerous fields of study, provides ways of understanding, comparing, and quantifying social relationships, allowing for deeper research into differences in social outcomes.

Social capital—an area of research closely related to that of social networks—may also provide a fruitful way of understanding the social benefits of attending college. Both perspectives have gained traction in research on secondary education, and it may only be a matter of time before the social outcomes of college are examined more closely.

To return to our main point, colleges can produce many different kinds of important outcomes that are worth understanding. The outcomes that are more easily quantified and more reliably measured aren’t necessarily the only ones colleges should be striving to produce.

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