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MOVEABLE TYPE: A Close Look at Undergraduate Student Success

How College Works (2014, Harvard University Press)

According to policy experts and politicians alike, the revitalization of the United States depends on how many college graduates higher education can produce. Faculty, staff and administrators alike feel the pressures of producing more graduates with shrinking budgets coupled with the rising number of techno-solutions that promise better results achieved more “efficiently.”

Daniel F. Chambliss, the Eugene M. Tobin distinguished professor of sociology at Hamilton College NY, and Christopher G. Takacs, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago IL and a Hamilton College alum, try to answer questions about what keeps students in college in their recent book How College Works (2014, Harvard University Press). The authors offer administrators and educators alike “methods simultaneously reliable, powerful, available and cheap for improving what students gain from college.” What becomes clear, however, is that these solutions are often easily implemented in a resource-rich environment such as Hamilton College, but not so simple or cheap at larger, underfunded, public institutions that serve underprepared or economically disadvantaged students.

The book analyzes what factors play a role in students’ success in college. The authors try to “spot those decisive moments that change the direction or intensity of their experience.” They studied the students at Hamilton College (who, they admit, are not typical American college students), drawing from over ten years of data and information on students and alumni, taken from interviews performed throughout the students’ experience in the college and as alumni, surveys, analysis of the students’ work, and various focus groups.

The authors decided to make the student their unit of analysis instead of specific initiatives or programs, because colleges should aim to graduate good students, and thus colleges should go to the source for their information. The authors used a combination of resources for their study: surveys and interviews with students, data from the National Survey for Student Engagement, internal data on student participation and majors, and internal assessment data. Their conclusion from the research? “What really matters in college is who meets whom, and when.” In other words, college students’ success lies in a handful of relationships the students form with each other and with faculty members throughout their college career.

The authors divide the book according to the most important moments or phases in a college student's life: “Entering,” “Choosing,” “Belonging,” “Learning” and “Finishing.” The sections emphasize how personal relationships, largely forged outside of the classroom, have an outsized impact on a student's choices and, by extension, success. They devote a chapter to the complex overlapping relationships between student groups, organizations, sports teams and majors, which is particularly acute at a small campus like Hamilton.

Interestingly, the authors map which activities on their campus lead to increased engagements and which activities tend to isolate students from interacting with a wider variety of students. This mapping work also shows the effect these out-of-class relationships have on their engagement with their studies. Students need to feel like they belong to a larger community, be it through a discipline, a social group or a team, for them to be successful.

Because both the informal system of course recommendations and the less explicit limitations of a student's time due to extracurricular activities can heavily influence how a student chooses a course, this limits the opportunities for professors to have an impact on students through personal connection. The authors therefore emphasize just how important introductory-level courses are to a student's eventual choice of major.

Female students in particular in this study were more susceptible to the influence of a particular professor or in-class experience, positively or negatively. Male students, on the other hand, tended within the study to be more driven by eventual career goals and were less likely to rely on their in-class experiences to drive their eventual choice of major.

Chambliss and Takacs recommend that only those professors who are strong in introductory-level courses teach those courses, to represent the best face for any given discipline and maximize the chances that a student will have a personal connection with the professors.

The authors suggest that a college re-allocate its resources in terms of how professors are used: the best professors for introductory courses should teach introductory courses, the best advisors should advise, and the best mentors should be given upper-division courses that focus more on those kinds of relationships. But what of those professors who are either not interested in or not particularly suited to these roles? “Schedule his class at 8:00 a.m. and hope no one shows up.”

That is not the only controversial recommendation that the authors make. The authors recommend that assessments be student-based; have students assess the school based on their perception of the entire experience and include students who did not graduate. While this push back from standardized assessments of programs and learning outcomes is refreshing, it is questionable as to whether or not an accrediting body like the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools would accept such a metric in their assessment of an institution.

While the authors insist throughout the book that these suggestions and solutions are largely applicable at any type of institution and with little additional resources, they don't address how larger, public institutions that have come to rely heavily on adjunct and graduate student labor to staff their introductory-level courses can easily or cheaply implement their recommendations. These contingent instructors can neither mentor nor advise students, nor have them over for dinner. The authors mention this issue in passing but never really engage with the larger issue of contingent faculty. They don't discuss how many students lose out on an opportunity for that deeper connection because much of their first-year experience is with contingent faculty teaching their classes.

Also, as the undergraduate student population has grown while the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty has decreased, those faculty members left have to also advise and mentor. The extra workload causes them to do a poorer job.

In addition, the beneficial activities that take place outside of the classroom (which include events like study abroad, sports teams, clubs, Greek life, music groups, etc.), are not all cost-neutral to the students themselves, in terms of both time and resources. We know that if there is to be any growth in our undergraduate student populations more generally, it will come from nontraditional students, many of whom don't posses the resources necessary to participate in these activities. Even if a university were to set up a fund to defray the costs of the activities, it still excludes those older students who need to work part-time (and even sometimes full-time) in order to support family and help pay for their educations.

The big question is: where are these students supposed to find those personal connections and achieve the necessary sense of belonging?

The authors provide a refreshing reminder of all the things college provides that techno-solutions (such as MOOCs or automated advising) don't. But they have missed an opportunity to call for more opportunities in the classroom to have personal connections both between faculty and students and between the students themselves.

The authors inadvertently have written a book that would seem to justify and celebrate the growing movement in higher education to turn campuses into resorts where what happens in the classroom is secondary to everything else. Certainly they show that learning happens through a study of the students’ writing, public speaking and critical thinking, but they choose to emphasize all the ways that it happens outside, rather than inside, the classroom (except for writing).

Our students should feel that they belong in the classroom as much as they do anywhere else on campus. That they don't and that the authors don't even encourage professors to try is a gap in the book. More troublesome is that the gap also exists in the imaginations of many with regard to where higher education is headed in the future.

Skallerup Bessette, Lee. (2014, April). MOVEABLE TYPE: A Close Look at Undergraduate Student Success. Women in Higher Education, 23(4), 6-7.

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