Matters of Choice

Matters of Choice

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.’”

‘I don’t think I had a sense of how complex and multifaceted, and at many points, difficult, the transition to college is for students’

As the group dug deeper into the data from the study, the central argument of the book became tied to one question. “We’re really interested in the big question of: How do you become liberally educated? What does that mean?” Cuba says. While many answer these questions with discussions of learning to think critically or acquiring abilities to do certain things, Cuba and his colleagues wanted to delve more into the process and less into the outcome. “It’s about practicing making decisions,” he says. “There are these basic, fundamental kinds of decisions that you need to be able to make as someone who is liberally educated: how you’re going to value things, how you’re going to allocate your time and set priorities, how you’re going to deal with difference, [and] how you’re going to find things that engage you and make meaning of your life.”

The study was intensely engaging for Cuba and his colleagues; the post-graduate interviews have even spawned further research for the team. But beyond that, “it absolutely changed me and my view about everything,” Cuba says. Although he has taught at Wellesley for decades and served as dean of the College, Cuba is still learning about students and their experience of college life. “I don’t think I had a sense of how complex and multifaceted, and at many points, difficult, the transition to college is for students,” he says. “I got a much better understanding of that, because they’re juggling a lot—a lot of expectations and a lot of change.”

Cuba hopes that he won’t be the only one learning from this study. The book is written for a wide range of audiences, from prospective students and parents to college administrators and faculty. “This is kind of an optimistic book,” Cuba says. “It’s basically one that says, there are many paths to success in college, and it’s not about checking off boxes or doing specific things, but it’s more generally about using it as an opportunity to make the bridge to later adult life.”

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