Photo by Richard Howard
Deciding upon a major and deciding whether to join the outing club are two very different kinds of decisions, but they may have an equal impact on a student’s collegiate experience. In the end, what may be most important is not the choices made, but learning how to make the decisions themselves—or so argues Professor of Sociology Lee Cuba, co-author of Practice for Life: Making Decisions in College.
College students make numerous decisions every day, such as whether to skip the reading for a class or whether to visit a professor during office hours. “Those small decisions that students make could have pretty big consequences for them,” Cuba says. “We feel that colleges, as well as students, parents, and a lot of other people, overemphasize the big ones.”
The book, co-authored with Nancy Jennings and Suzanne Lovett of Bowdoin College and Wellesley senior lecturer in sociology Joseph Swingle, started as a collaborative faculty-driven assessment project in 2005. Working with faculty and administrators from seven liberal arts colleges, the group did a longitudinal study that followed more than 200 students throughout their college careers and one year beyond. “We interviewed them three times in their first year, and then every semester thereafter, and then after they graduated,” Cuba says. “There are very few studies that would have so closely paid attention to students as they were moving through college, and gathered that much information on a relatively large number of students.”
Because seven different colleges were involved, each institution had its own particular interests to pursue, but there was a group of core questions that every school used, in addition to any college-specific inquiries. Students were asked a series of similar questions during the study to see if their views changed over time, how they changed, and why. One question revolved around what would make the upcoming year a success for the student. “For many students, that does shift over time. It kind of moves away from the first year, ‘I want good grades and good friends,’” Cuba says, “to ‘I want to make wise decisions, make priorities. I want to really dig deep into a subject.’”