Memories in academia are often dishearteningly short. Today, few academics, outside of colleges of education and offices of student affairs, are familiar with Arthur Chickering’s seven vectors of student development. But any serious thinking about the purpose of a college education needs to grapple with Chickering’s argument. In his 1969 Education and Identity, he insisted that college should be as much about students’ social, emotional, and interpersonal development as it is about their intellectual and cognitive growth.
College, in Chickering’s view, provided an ideal setting where students could achieve autonomy, define an adult identity, learn to manage their emotions, develop mature interpersonal relationships, and chart clear vocational goals.
Ethnographic studies of college, like Dorothy C. Holland’s Educated in Romance, Michael Moffatt’s Coming of Age in New Jersey, Cathy Small’s My Freshman Year or Peter Magolda’s anthropological accounts, or, more recently, Elizabeth A. Armstrong’s Paying for the Party, suggest that for most 18-to-22 year-old college students, college is, first and foremost, a coming of age experience. It’s in college that students learn to act independently, largely free of adult supervision.
It’s at college that many hone the essential skills of adulthood, time management, multitasking, meeting deadlines, and dealing with arbitrary bureaucratic policies. Equally important, residential students learn indispensable social skills: especially how to interact with diverse peers and how to enter, manage, and end intimate relationships.
What college isn’t, for most students, is a deeply engaging intellectual experience. At most institutions, first and second year students do not share any common curricular experiences, nor do many have much close contact with faculty outside of class.
Not surprisingly, then, for most residential students, social life and extracurriculars are at least as important as their academic experiences in classrooms and laboratories. Indeed, overwhelmed by the competing demands of their studies, social life, and work obligations, many cut academic corners or only concentrate on their studies immediately before assignments are due or mid-terms and finals are administered.
None of this is new, of course; but colleges do appear to devote less attention to students’ non-cognitive development, and, as Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson persuasively argue in The Ambitious Generation, faculty do a particularly poor job of helping students develop clear career objectives and realistic paths to achieving these.
As college students’ social background has diversified and as off-campus paid work has become more common, the nature of campus life has changed profoundly. The “formal” college culture, revolving around intercollegiate athletics and organized campus-wide rituals and extracurricular activities, has lost much of its popularity. No longer do fraternities and sororities dominate campus social life as they once did. Today, an “informal” college culture predominates. Students’ non-academic life largely involves casual socializing or partying with small circles of friends and acquaintances.
If college is to be a true coming of age experience, it needs to better integrate the vectors of development that Chickering identified. Institutions must seriously ponder how they can better promote student development. It is not enough to assume that development will occur naturally in dorm rooms or off-campus apartments; nor is it sufficient for faculty to cede responsibility to deans of students, RAs, or student service offices.
College curricula, especially at the general education level, might offer students common intellectual experiences that grapple with enduring aesthetic, ethical, philosophical, and psychological issues that speak to their developing sense of identity and direction. Faculty, especially at large universities, might interact more closely with students outside of class, for example, through mentored research experiences. To familiarize students with a broader range of vocational opportunities, campuses might offer more supervised co-op, internship, or service learning experiences.
We often hear that college provides something more than narrow vocational training. In fact, colleges, in general, do not do an especially effective job at career preparation. What they can do is strive more keenly to cultivate student development in all its dimensions.
Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.