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Review essay.

Does College Make a Difference? Long-Term Changes in Activities and Attitudes, by William E. Knox, Paul Lindsay, and Mary N. Kolb. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. 288 pp. $55.00

This book would be of value for its data alone: it reports the results of a fourteen-year longitudinal follow-up study of a nationally representative sample of young men and women graduating from high school in 1972. One set of analyses is based on a sample of 5,409 black and white women and men who completed questionnaires in 1972, 1974, and 1986 as part of the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 (NLS-72). The sample includes persons who did not attend any postsecondary institutions during the fourteen years after graduating from high school as well as those who did. A second set of analyses is restricted to just those high-school students (N = 2,702) graduating from high school in 1972 who had at least some college experience.

The authors are interested in explaining the change and stability in a wide variety of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of the individuals under study. They divide these characteristics -- referred to as outcomes -- into five categories as based largely on Robert Bellah and his associates' analysis [1] of mainstream American goals: utilitarian individualism (success goals, annual earnings, occupational status, participation in job-related groups and associations, and occupational goals); expressive individualism as reflected in social participation and life goals; civic commitment (political involvement and participation in community activities); self-conception (self-direction and self-esteem); and satisfaction with schooling and perceptions of educational experience. Possible explanatory factors are also divided into various sets: level of educational attainment (high school only, less than two years of college, two years of college, bachelor's degree, advanced degree); earlier (input) values of the outcome variables under consideration; background factors (gender, race, social class, and academic abilities); institutional characteristics of the colleges attended by those students who continued their schooling after high-school graduation (size of student body, selectivity, public or private control, proportion of students living on campus, proportion of students who are full time, proportion of educational programs that are vocational); and characteristics of the student's career in college (major field, whether the student lived on campus, college grades).

Apart from the predictable influence of the person's attitudes, beliefs, and activities when graduating from high school on his or her characteristics some years later, the strongest and most consistent influence on the outcome variables was level of educational attainment. The authors found that the more years of education and the higher the degrees attained by persons, the greater their earnings and occupational status ("prestige"). Moreover, college strengthened individuals' commitment to the dominant American values of work, success, and achievement through competition. Attaining educational credentials appeared to enhance some aspects of expressive individualism, but not others: whereas the perceived importance to a person of a good education and his or her participation in cultural groups tended to be influenced by increases in educational status, goals having to do with marriage, family, friends, and leisure did not. As for civic engagement, those with bachelor's and advanced degrees were more likely than high-school graduates without any college to engage in political and community activity, and although commitment to community leadership and social justice as life goals typically declined as individuals reached their early thirties, the decline was smaller for those achieving higher educational levels compared to high-school graduates with no further formal education. Persons achieving higher degrees tended to gain in self-esteem and self-direction. Finally, the greater the education of those under study, the more they were satisfied with the academic aspects of their schools and the more they reported intellectually challenging, interesting, and successful learning experiences during their college years. In general, these various findings held under controls for the background of the individuals, the characteristics of the colleges they attended, and their career experiences within college.

In contrast to the effect of level of college attainment, the effects of selected institutional features of the colleges that students attended and their career experiences within those colleges were few and scattered. (Although the authors do not note this, the design of the study does not allow determining whether such impacts were more numerous and stronger during the college years and then dissipated after college or whether the effects were not strong or plentiful to begin with.) To give an example of an observed effect, persons who had been business majors in college were found to be slightly less likely than others in later life to value having received a good education or to report participation in cultural or literary groups. Likewise, there were some but not many instances in which gender, race, family socioeconomic status, or academic abilities affected outcomes once other factors were controlled. One instance of such effects was that upon high-school graduation women were as likely as men to be involved in political activities and discussion, but years later men had become more politically engaged than women.

The data reported in Does College Make a Difference? do not exhaust the book's significance. Particularly noteworthy is the interpretive framework within which findings and results are placed. This framework, which is single-mindedly sociological, is not at all the customary one used in the study of college students. Over the years, two broadly different approaches -- characterized roughly as psychological and sociological -- have been used (with differential frequency) to study the change and stability of college students. Thus Gamson [6] refers to an "effect" approach as distinguished from a "process" approach. Pascarella and Terenzini [10] have compared developmental theories grounded in psychology with college impact models of college student change and stability. Some time ago [4], I contrasted the developmental approach with approaches entitled "life-cycle movement (certification and labeling)" and "colleges as social organizations"; and recently [5], I reframed this contrast in terms of two kinds of social psychological approaches to the study of college students (namely, psychological social psychology and sociological social psychology). In the more general consideration of change and stability of individuals throughout the life course, not just in college, "ontogenetic" explanations have been distinguished from "sociogenic" explanations [2, 3].

Those who study college students usually adopt one or the other of these two kinds of analytic stances. Even those who use both usually end up favoring one over the other. The two stances, however, are anything but equally prevalent in the literature. As Pascarella and Terenzini [10] put it, "developmental theories of student growth have to date dominated study and practice in this area" (p. 47); and elsewhere in their book, they speak of the "overall dominance of the psychological paradigm for explaining student change" [10, pp. 15-16]. In taking a strong sociological stance, Knox, Lindsay, and Kolb help redress this imbalance. Their interpretive framework is taken from the allocation-credentialling theory associated with John Meyer [7, 8, 9]. In this theory higher education is viewed as allocating persons to new statuses and identities, while at the same time encouraging in them the attitudes, values, and motivations necessary to enact the roles appropriate to these new statuses and to engage in behaviors appropriate to these new identities.

It cannot be said that the authors offer a "test" of the allocation-credentialling theory, but they do show that their findings can be meaningfully interpreted within it. An example of such an interpretation of a finding follows:

Commitment to being a leader in the community, we have seen, also declined

for our whole sample in the years of young adulthood. Yet those who

do retain greater civic-mindedness in this sense are more likely to be people

with bachelors' and advanced degrees. . . . The patterns in the data are

clear and strong. Compared to high school graduates, the odds of being

committed to this goal are almost twice as high for bachelor's degree

holders and even higher for those with advanced degrees. We see in these

life goal changes the process described by Meyer . . . in which young

adults come to recognize the educational status they have achieved. They

begin to defIne themselves in these terms and anticipate acting appropriately

for people of their status. People with less education lower their

expectations and accept their place as followers to reduce their commitment

to community leadership. People at all levels accept the definitions of

themselves conferred by the educational system they have accepted as fair

and legitimate (p. 106).

Here and elsewhere in their book, it might have been valuable for the authors to have discussed how such interpretations differ from those that would be expected from a developmental framework, but they have not done so.

The authors have been candid -- refreshingly so says Ernest Pascarella in his foreword to the book -- about the limitations of their study. Among these limitations are the ruling out of indirect causal paths beyond the scope of their analysis, the definition of educational attainment only in broad groupings, various measurement constraints, lack of distinction between "normal" and "atypical" or "disjointed" educational careers, and difficulties associated in analyzing one cohort in sociohistorical isolation. They also point out that the aggregate nature of their study imposes a limitation: because very few students in the sample attended any given institution, the uniqueness of an institution and the distinctive differences between particular institutions are lost.

The authors clearly were intent on making their book readable and in large part have succeeded in that attempt. However, I might question certain of their decisions about where to put what. As the book now stands, most of the information about how the variables in the study were measured has been given in appendix A of the book, and most of the information about the research design and methods of data analysis has been given in appendix B. The authors write: "We excluded most technical material from the body of the book because we wanted our sociological interpretations to be straightforward, intelligible, and provocative" (p. 199). This strategy may work well for readers who skip tables and who skim (or skip) detailed text material, concentrating instead on summary paragraphs and concluding sections; but at least in terms of intelligibility, I believe the more serious reader will find that the tables and certain parts of the text are hard to follow or to understand without having the information in the appendices. Thus, I would suggest that such a reader, after going through the introductory chapter, actually look over the appendices before reading the rest of the book.

The authors, I assume also for the purpose of enhancing readability, have put much of their material in footnotes. They have overdone it. For instance, the short chapter entitled "A Pursuit of Self" has approximately twelve pages of text and six pages of footnotes. Here and in other chapters, some footnotes are either short enough (many are only one sentence long) or interesting enough to have been incorporated into the text itself. Moreover, certain of the footnotes are more than a little tangential and could have been eliminated altogether.

Just as the authors of Does College Make a Difference? note certain limitations of their study, they also point out the strengths of their research design and methods. They list these as having used a longitudinal or panel design and a fourteen-year time span; having included in the study a control group of persons with no formal education after high school; having used a nationally representative sample; having studied a wide range of individual attitudes and behavioral reports; and having incorporated data on the characteristics of postsecondary educational institutions as well as data on students' experiences in these settings. I would add that their statistical analyses are done carefully, their incorporation of the work of other scholars is impeccable, and their interpretive framework emphasizes a valuable dimension in the study of college students that has been too little considered heretofore. That their study is not without some limitations and that it perhaps may have occasional lapses in expositional clarity does not significantly detract from its many and genuine accomplishments.


[1.] Bellah, R. N., et al. Habits of the Heart. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

[2.] Dannefer, D. "Adult Development and Social Theory: A Paradigmatic Reappraisal." American Sociological Review, 49 (February 1984), 100-16.

[3.] Featherman. D. L., and R. M. Lerner. "Ontogenesis and Sociogenesis: Problematics for Theory and Research about Development and Socialization across the Life Span." American Sociological Review, 50 (October 1985), 659-76.

[4.] Feldman, K. A. "Some Theoretical Approaches to the Study of Change and Stability of College Students." Review of Educational Research, 42 (Winter 1972), 1-26.

[5.] "Introduction to the Transaction Edition." In The Impact of College on Students, by K. A. Feldman and T. M. Newcomb, pp. ix-xxiii. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1994.

[6.] Gamson, Z. F. "Why is College So Influential? The Continuing Search for Answers." Change, 23 (November/December 1991), 50-54.

[7.] Meyer, J. W. "The Charter: Conditions of Diffuse Socialization in Schools." In Social Processes and Social Structures, edited by W. R. Scott, pp. 564-78. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

[8.] --. "The Effects of the Institutionalization of Colleges in Society." In College and Student: Selected Readings in the Social Psychology of Higher Education, edited by K. A. Feldman, pp. 109-26. New York: Pergamon, 1972.

[9.] --. "The Effects of Education as an Institution." American Journal of Sociology, 83 (July 1977), 55-77.

[10.] Pascarella, E. T., and P. T. Terenzini. How College Affects Students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Kenneth A. Feldman is professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
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Author:Feldman, Kenneth A.
Publication:Journal of Higher Education
Date:Jul 1, 1995
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