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Practice for Life

Practice for Life

Making Decisions in College

Lee Cuba, Nancy Jennings, Suzanne Lovett, Joseph Swingle

ISBN 9780674970663

Publication date: 08/15/2016

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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.

    —Daniel Chambliss, coauthor of How College Works


  • Lee Cuba is Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College.
  • Nancy Jennings is Associate Professor of Education at Bowdoin College.
  • Suzanne Lovett is Associate Professor of Psychology at Bowdoin College.
  • Joseph Swingle is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Wellesley College.

Book Details

  • 256 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press