From the day they arrive on campus, college students spend four years—or sometimes more—making decisions that shape every aspect of their academic and social lives. Whether choosing a major or a roommate, some students embrace decision-making as an opportunity for growth, while others seek to minimize challenges and avoid risk. Practice for Life builds a compelling case that a liberal arts education offers students a complex, valuable process of self-creation, one that begins in college but continues far beyond graduation.
Sifting data from a five-year study that followed over two hundred students at seven New England liberal arts colleges, the authors uncover what drives undergraduates to become engaged with their education. They found that students do not experience college as having a clear beginning and end but as a continuous series of new beginnings. They start and restart college many times, owing to the rhythms of the academic calendar, the vagaries of student housing allocation, and other factors. This dynamic has drawbacks as well as advantages. Not only students but also parents and faculty place enormous weight on some decisions, such as declaring a major, while overlooking the small but significant choices that shape students’ daily experience.
For most undergraduates, deep engagement with their college education is at best episodic rather than sustained. Yet these disruptions in engagement provide students with abundant opportunities for reflection and course-correction as they learn to navigate the future uncertainties of adult life.