Cheerfully Defending the Status Quo

Oh, to be so right and yet so wrong. . . .How College Works

How College Works, a new book by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, is the product of nearly a decade of research on students at Hamilton College. The authors – Chambliss is a professor of sociology at Hamilton and Takacs is a Hamilton alum now a doctoral student at the University of Chicago – examined academic records, interviewed students and faculty, and dove deep into the student experience to learn what truly had an impact at Hamilton. Their findings, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent significant time at an elite residential undergraduate institution, is that human interactions were of greater importance than programs. Superb teachers mattered more than the subjects they taught. Dormitory and college social life were extraordinarily valuable. And that improvements in education often meant improving relationships between student and mentor.

For those interested in gaining a deeper and more rigorous understanding of how elite institutions operate, How College Works is an excellent case study. We learn that many consequential student choices are the product of happenstance or impulse – seemingly without any long-term negative results. The choice of a major for many students is simply a declaration of interest as opposed to the product of an academic or career plan. Positive feelings abound in the study. Student regrets are mostly about not joining or participating as much as they could. The overall environment at Hamilton, with multiple opportunities for quality interactions, creates many loose ties and and a host of positive benefits. The conclusion is clear: residential students in a comfortable and not too distracting environment, supported by their families, each other, and a college eager to help them develop into successful and happy young men and women, tend to develop into successful and happy men and woman. It has been an effective model for centuries and it seems to working just fine for most Hamilton students.

Chambliss and Takacs’s book, though, falls significantly short. Their consistent optimism and the affirmations of successful Hamilton graduates tends to fly high over challenges and complications that are embedded within students’ experiences. While gender is given some attention, we simply have no idea if there are differences for students taking into account race or class. Tuition, room, board, and fees at Hamilton are estimated at $59,970 for the 2014-15 academic year. Are all Hamilton students from the upper middle class? Do students of color or those whose families are less well off graduate at the same high rate? Do they experience Hamilton as do whiter and wealthier students? What impact does financial aid have on students? What about academic preparation? These and other questions simply are absent from the narrative, and that begs the question if they are absent from Hamilton. They are front and center at many other institutions of higher education.

The broader problem is that Chambliss and Takacs do not seem to appreciate fully that their case study reflects a narrow segment of higher education. At Hamilton, the student faculty ration is 9:1. Three quarters of all classes have 19 or fewer students. Most faculty have terminal degrees and there are few adjuncts. I have no complaint with Hamilton or its prosperity. It is an outstanding college. But Hamilton is a poor representative of American higher education.

Public institutions and most privates have to function differently. For students who attend these less wealthy institutions, the differences are dramatic. Class sizes are much larger. Full-time faculty are fewer and significantly less accessible. Students who attend less prestigious institutions of higher education are deeply concerned with the selection of a major and a career. That pressure often comes from families of first-generation college students; it is also very common when families stretch financially to fund a college education. Most college students live at home, attend two or more colleges, and part-time study is the norm.

The authors write from a position of privilege yet do not situate themselves as a position of privilege. Their suggestions about how to improve undergraduate education are helpful, but useful really only for particular kinds of colleges. It is cheering to hear that many Hamilton students found a dinner in a professor’s home to be a meaningful event. However, that kind of interaction is simply impossible at many American institutions of higher education.

At a broad level, the authors affirm the things as they are at Hamilton. They attest that strategic plans are a waste of time. They see little value in learning outcomes assessment and administrator’s fascination with technology and program development is misguided. But is the status quo at Hamilton and other elite institutions sustainable?  Should Hamilton need to cut costs, rely on part-time faculty, or reach new and different student populations, change would be unavoidable. Those sorts of changes have swept higher education and will continue.

Hamilton College’s endowment is north of $700 million. It is a very good institution. Sizable numbers of students want to attend it and there are sufficient numbers of parents who can afford to send their children to it. A key question facing American higher education in the future is whether enough students and their families in the coming years will make that same choice.

David Potash

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