Harvard Educational Review
  1. How College Works

    Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs

    Harvard University Press

    Daniel F. Chambliss, a professor of sociology at Hamilton College, and Christopher G. Takacs, a Hamilton College alumnus and sociology PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, begin How College Works with the question, “In an era of fixed or even shrinking, resources, can the quality of collegiate education be improved at no additional cost?” (p. 1) For the authors, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Drawing on data from a multimethod ten-year longitudinal study of student experience at Hamilton College, Chambliss and Takacs describe how students end up on their particular paths through college. They extrapolate from the patterned differences between students’ experiences and conclude by offering no-cost strategies colleges might deploy to produce ­better-educated student bodies.

    The book is divided into chapters that correspond to students’ chronological college experience: “Entering,” “Choosing,” “The Arithmetic of Engagement,” “Belonging,” “Learning,” and “Finishing.” In each chapter Chambliss and Takacs present a few of the factors that appear to be most influential in shaping the college experience for students during each period of their undergraduate career. Importantly, the authors rely on the students’ own accounts and construct each section around the excerpted data. This structure is both logical and illustrative as it emphasizes the cumulative nature of students’ paths through college. For example, Frank, a student who readers see struggle with developing friendships at the start of his freshman year in the beginning of the book, appears in later chapters unable to draw on a social network for support during periods of academic difficulty, as other students reported doing during their sophomore and junior years.

    The authors distill their research into ten principles of how college works in practice. These principles describe both the social processes students engage in and the college’s organizational structures that encourage and inhibit students’ academic successes. However, these principles essentially boil down to the key finding of How College Works: “people, far more than programs, majors, or classes, are decisive in students’ experiences of college” (p. 163). This point is straightforward and ostensibly simple, which belies the nuance therein. For a surprisingly large proportion of students at Hamilton College, success and satisfaction were dependent on to their personal relationships. In the beginning of college, such relationships were necessary to build the social networks that were sources of support and motivation.

    Chambliss and Takacs remind readers that the bulk of the decisions students made that were most consequential for their academic trajectories occurred within the first two years of college, when they were least knowledgeable. Thus, as students selected courses and extracurricular activities, they typically relied on information gathered from friends, teammates, or roommates, which resulted in students following certain predetermined paths. Given the reported disincentives to enroll in courses for which one has no prior experience—“it’s hard to be a music major if you are starting from scratch, or a biology major if you come from a poor high school” (p. 64)—it was notable when students opted to change their paths. This was most often attributable to interactions, often by chance, with the “right” person. Many students reported that encounters with a professor—a chat after class, an invitation to dinner at a professor’s home, a captivating campus talk—prompted them to select a course they previously hadn’t considered and ultimately led them to major in a previously unconsidered field.

    The claim that people are integral to how college works is further evidenced by the accounts of students who were either socially isolated or who encountered the “wrong” person. Without close friends or acquaintances, students were more likely to emotionally withdraw from school, put less effort into their academic work, or drop out. Just as positive interactions with professors seemed to have a large impact on student experience, interactions with professors who students perceived to be ineffective mentors or poor teachers often resulted in students losing interest in a discipline entirely.
    In the concluding chapter, “Lessons Learned,” Chambliss and Takacs set forth a series of recommendations to colleges informed by their findings. These proposals, while modest, are intended to be effective, require “very small efforts,” and be resource neutral. Among the suggestions are calls to “deploy the best teachers for maximum impact” and “help motivated students find each other.” As one might expect, each of the six actions is designed to have colleges more strategically help students build peer networks and foster relationships between students and faculty.

    The authors aptly identify that the insights from their inquiry have direct relevance for a diverse audience comprised of researchers, higher education administrators, faculty, parents, and students. As a result, they take care to write in an accessible manner by providing definitions of terms and explanations of concepts often omitted from texts written for researchers. While Chambliss and Takacs surmise that few high school or college-age students will read How College Works, it is clear that students should. In addition to providing tips to college leaders, the authors also advise students to “spend your time with good people” and offer some insightful and easily actionable suggestions to students.

    The book, however, is not without its limitations. As the authors acknowledge, though the study design was rigorous and collected rich data from a variety of sources, the results are by no means fully generalizable. Hamilton College is a small, well-endowed, residential, northeastern liberal arts college, and most of the entering students have records of high academic achievement and come from upper-middle-income homes. Hamilton is also unique in that it does not have a set of required courses that introduce the students to a range of disciplines.

    Another point of concern is that early on the authors cast aside issues of socioeconomic status, saying, “Lifting all children in America out of poverty would dramatically improve the country’s education results. But no dean or president, however influential, can just change her current students’ history or background” (p. 10). Nonetheless, the importance of students’ economic backgrounds is evident throughout the text. In particular, the data indicate that when students are entering college, those who previously attended prep schools benefit from academic and social advantages. Similarly, there is very little consideration of how race alters students’ college experiences, though nonwhite students also reported disproportionate difficulty in entering and feeling a sense of belonging in the college. Conspicuously absent are the recommendations within the locus of a college’s control that attend to inequalities during the crucial beginning period of college.

    Notwithstanding, by achieving its dual aims—to depict how college benefits, or fails to benefit, students and positing what colleges, professors, and students can do to improve students’ educational experiences—How College Works offers a meaningful contribution to existing research on organizational and social structures in higher education.

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    Book Notes

    How College Works
    Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs

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