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.
Unlike many books on higher education, Practice for Life doesn’t rely on the usual ways of categorizing the undergraduate experience. The authors examine the most normal—even obvious—features of college life in new and insightful ways, showing how what students actually do in college can be profoundly important to how they live the rest of their lives. A satisfying read.
I read this book first as a college president and then as a parent. In both respects, I found my views challenged as the authors opened up new avenues for thinking about and understanding how students experience college. By focusing on the daily decisions students make, the authors explore the ways college is practice for life and the strategies colleges (and parents) can use to deepen the learning that takes place across campus.
At a time when the value of college is a major subject of debate, this book answers the question: what do students really learn in college? The authors convincingly demonstrate that liberal education provides the critical framework needed for students to develop the ability to understand choices and make life-changing decisions. The depth of research reflected in this book, involving hundreds of students interviewed over the course of four years of college, makes it a unique resource for college and university administrators, professors, and students and families who seek to understand the nature of the college experience.
This book…reminds us that a substantial amount of the learning that takes place—perhaps the majority of it—occurs outside of the college classroom. The arguments in this book will remain with me in the coming years in my role as a faculty adviser, or when I am meeting with students in my office hours, or even when I am considering how to invite students to connect more deeply with my courses.
[Practice for Life] has been invaluable as a way of thinking about helping my students adjust to college…For those interested in advising students, the vignettes collected here provide much food for thought.
- 256 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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