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The early 19th century witnessed the rise of a new life stage. Called girlhood, it was a period of relative freedom when a young woman, aged roughly between 12 and 25, was neither under a father or a husband’s authority. For the first time in history, substantial numbers of young women lived outside a family home, not as servants but as mill girls, earning an independent income and living with other young women.

Their work was onerous, stretching 10 or even 12 hours a day. The mills were loud and filthy, the air stale and polluted, the pay low. The degree of exploitation increased over time, leading to recurrent labor strikes. But many mill girls nonetheless regarded their work as a kind of liberation and found in the mills a sense of sisterhood. Their experience also led many young women to view marriage in a new light: as a closing off of freedoms enjoyed in girlhood. Their letters and diaries reveal that many experienced a “marriage trauma” (in the historian Nancy F. Cott’s words) as they contemplated marriage or decided to remain single.

Today, college serves, for many late adolescents and young adults, a somewhat similar function. A moratorium from full adulthood responsibilities, the college years leave a lasting imprint on their attitude and sensibilities. It, too, is a period of relative freedom with profound consequences for their outlook and values. It leaves them a changed person.

How so?

According to the United Negro College Fund, a college education produces community-oriented individuals. Ohio State maintains that college enhances multicultural awareness, builds leadership skills and promotes mental and physical well-being. The University of South Florida says that college will teach you how to “speak, write and carry yourself like the professional you will soon become.”

Without a doubt, a college education offers many social benefits, including increased job opportunities, higher potential earnings, greater job stability and security, increased life satisfaction, and better health and longer life expectancy. College is linked to greater civic involvement and higher rates of voting.

But what do undergraduates truly take away from college? As of 2006, there were already between 6,000 and 7,000 studies of the impact of college on students. Since then, the number that has risen exponentially. What, we might ask, do these studies tell us?

The best answers can be found in a series of somewhat older volumes. There’s a tendency to assume that more recent studies supersede those written in the past, but that’s not always the case. Certain books withstand the test of time. Examples include Kenneth Feldman and Theodore Newcomb’s The Impact of College on Students (1969); Alexander W. Astin’s Four Critical Years: Effects of College on Beliefs, Attitudes and Knowledge (1977) and its sequel, What Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited (1993); and Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini’s How College Affects Students (originally published in 1991 and revised in 2005 and updated in 2016 by Matthew J. Mayhew, Alyssa N. Rockenbach, Nicholas A. Bowman, Tricia A. D. Seifert and Gregory C. Wolniak).

Each of these books examines college’s impact: on students’ identity and self-concept and their values, attitudes and beliefs. Given profound shifts in student demographics, the earlier volumes’ focus on full-time, traditional-aged, residential students, largely at selective four-year institutions, makes the generalizability of the authors’ conclusions open to question. Still, their findings are highly suggestive.

Here’s what the authors found:

  1. College affects undergraduates in ways that go well beyond the acquisition of knowledge and skills; college influences their attitudes toward race, diversity, gender, sex and religion, as well as their psychosocial development, contributing to growth in students’ confidence and self-esteem.
  2. Contrary to what Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa concluded in Academically Adrift, these authors found that college had many positive effects; not only were graduates able to write, speak and calculate better than nongraduates, but their ability to reason was more sophisticated, their interest in the arts and culture was greater, they more engaged in civic affairs and were more tolerant, open-minded and self-aware.
  3. College’s impact hinges largely on the level of student engagement: the time and effort devoted to studying, the frequency and quality of interactions with faculty, peers and professional staff and the extent to which students take advantage of extracurricular activities.
  4. For all their talk about caring for individual student’s well-being, most institutions failed to do much to accommodate differences in students’ interests or talents or to offer personalized or customized support services.
  5. College is as much a social as an academic experience and interactions with peers and professors alter students’ attitudes and values, usually in a more liberal and tolerant direction, and socialize undergraduates in certain ideas, beliefs and outlooks.
  6. At least among selective institutions, the traditional indicators of quality, such as admissions selectivity, institutional size, financial resources, reputation or even student-faculty ratio make much less difference than the quality of interaction with faculty and classmates and the level of participation in nonacademic and extracurricular activities (with the notable exception of fraternity membership, which has a negative impact on academic engagement and attitudes toward diversity).

More than three decades ago, in a 1992 essay, George Kuh spelled out the implications of these findings. Institutions that are seriously committed to providing their students with an impactful college experience that is developmental and transformative should do more to ensure that:

  1. Their students are actively engaged in the school’s academic and social life. That will certainly require devoting more money to financial aid to allow student to devote more time to their studies and co-curricular and extracurricular activities.
  2. Their faculty take teaching and mentoring seriously. Campuses must do more to hire faculty who are firmly committed to teaching and mentoring, support instructors to implement more engaging pedagogies and incentivize faculty interaction with students outside as well as inside the classroom.
  3. Students interact more with peers who share their values and aspirations. Participation in an affinity group or a learning community organized around a theme or shared interest can provide students with the support and affirmation they need to succeed.
  4. Their curriculum is truly balanced and includes training in academic success skills and a rich liberal arts core. A well-rounded curriculum will give students the skills and background knowledge that they need to succeed in upper-division courses as well as the range of literacies that will help them become mature, sophisticated adults.
  5. Their student life initiatives support and reinforce their academic offerings. Student support services and co-curricular and extracurricular offerings should complement the campuses’ academic courses. Undergraduates, irrespective of their age, identity and background, are undergoing wrenching transformations, and campuses need to do more to support them as they undergo these transitions.
  6. Their students feel that they belong and are valued as individuals. Students who feel a sense of connection to their instructors, classmates and the institution are much more likely to make the investment in time and focus that academic success requires.

In recent years, a college degree has become a key partisan dividing line. As we have seen, college makes a big difference in attitudes and behavior. It’s not just that college-going typically delays attainment of the markers of adult identity—marriage, homeownership, a steady job and childbearing—it also influences opinions, viewpoints and ways of thinking

Let me be clear: this is not because students are propagandized or indoctrinated—an accounting or a marketing degree doesn’t have any direct political impact—but out of exposure to a new vocabulary, ideas and values. This language and these ways of thinking aren’t instilled systematically, but, rather, pervade the academy.

So what are these ideas, concepts, values and modes of thought?

  • Critical consciousness: Critical thinking is not merely a matter of interpretation, analysis and evaluation; it’s also about skepticism and calling into question received opinions, the conventional wisdom and what’s often deemed common sense.
  • Linguistics and semantics: It’s in college that many young people first encounter and acquire a new vocabulary. This is a language that psychologizes and medicalizes behavior and motivations, a terminology that describes and labels emotions and interpersonal relationships and, as we are increasingly aware of today, a vocabulary that articulates identity, power dynamics, injury, trauma, impairment, harm and maltreatment.
  • Secularism: Apart from religious colleges, the academy is largely indifferent to religion and to religious doctrines and practice and spiritual concerns and has instead adopted a largely unacknowledged secular belief system and vocabulary. In general, college appears to contribute to a decline in religiosity.
  • Liberalism: By this, I simply mean exposure to a political and moral philosophy that emphasizes individual rights and personal freedom and that stresses the value of diversity and openness to new ideas. In many instances, it also entails an introduction to a liberal interpretation of U.S. history, with its emphasis on the positive value of government, labor unions and immigration, sensitivity toward the costs of the nation’s economic growth, territorial expansion and foreign entanglements, and its depiction of the country’s history as an ongoing struggle against entrenched economic interests and advocates of illiberal values.
  • Academic discourse: Undergraduates acquire some level of familiarity, even fluency, with concepts associated with postmodernism and social justice thinking, such as the fluidity of gender and sexual identities, intersectionality, and the indeterminacy of absolute truth.
  • Negativism: Although most college students are optimistic about their personal future, about half express pessimism about the world’s future, and a slim majority are pessimistic about whether there will be significant progress in combating climate change, poverty or political polarization (though a majority do believe there will be progress combating racism and other forms of bigotry).

Please don’t misinterpret what I am saying. To acknowledge that the academy is infused with certain unspoken or implicit values and implants a distinctive vocabulary and ways of thinking is not to imply that colleges and universities are engaged in a concerted program of brainwashing. All institutions contain, reflect or express certain tacit or embedded ideologies, and the academy is no exception.

The most significant divide in American society today is between the college educated and non–college graduates. These two groups increasingly inhabit two separate cultures, one more cosmopolitan, worldly and, yes, more sophisticated than the other. A college education does indeed fuel this country’s cultural divide, and there is a real danger that as the culture of the university increasingly differs from the culture at large, political strains will intensify and boil over.

But that doesn’t mean that the academy should respond by downplaying its commitment to critical thinking or cultural criticism. Colleges and universities must remain true to their guiding star, which is to subject all ideas to analysis and critique and to remain society’s arena for unfettered discussion, deliberation and debate.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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