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October 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 4 · pp. 50–53 

Book Review

Four Critical Years

Alexander W. Astin. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1977. 293 pages.

Reviewed by Dalton Reimer

Mennonite Brethren in significant numbers are choosing various higher educational alternatives—universities, state colleges, junior/community colleges, non-denominational Christian colleges—in addition to our own schools. Therefore, the Church is being shaped by these institutions as well as our own schools. The issue is two-fold: What institutions of higher education should our brotherhood sponsor? And, what institutions should our young people choose to attend? Perhaps in becoming better acquainted with the larger educational landscape focused in the two works reviewed, we will be able to better answer both of these questions.

Both authors are highly respected in higher educational circles. Bowen, an economist by academic profession, has served as president or chancellor of Grinnell College, the University of Iowa, and Claremont University Center. Astin is Professor of Higher Education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program of the American Council on Education and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Both works appeared after several years of major emphasis on career education in American higher education, coupled with charges that colleges are irrelevant or colleges prepare persons for jobs which don’t exist. Bowen and Astin react to a narrowing of the purpose of college to career education. They demonstrate that the impact of higher education goes beyond preparing persons for jobs. Indeed, Bowen, the economist, argues that the notion of “blue collar work is in some sense inappropriate for educated men and women.” It is “a carry-over from an obsolete and aristocratic conception of both work and higher education.”

Bowen and Astin share a common assumption—educational policy makers, at least in the U.S., have made decisions about higher {51} education while largely unaware of the effects of higher education upon persons and society. Hence, the authors also share a common purpose—to bring to the attention of policy makers educational research which might influence and shape policies regarding the future of higher education. These works have relevance, then, to “administrators, governing boards, legislators, faculty members, or the general public”, to quote Bowen. I would add Mennonite Brethren.

Both authors seek to summarize current educational research. Bowen’s effort is more comprehensive. He seeks to summarize essential research regarding the goals recommended for higher education, both past and present; the impact of higher education on the development of the mind, “emotional and moral development”, and “practical competence” (related to citizenship, economic productivity, family life, consumer behavior, leisure, and health); and the consequences of higher education for society (resulting from research and public service, movement toward human equality, economic returns, etc.). Astin’s effort is more limited, but more discriminating among institutional types. He is principally concerned to reflect the results of ten-years of research through the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, a massive effort to gather long term data from over 200,000 students and 300 institutions pertaining to some 80 possible outcomes of higher education, including student attitudes, self-concepts, values, aspirations, behavior patterns, persistence, achievement, competency, career development, and satisfaction.

Educational research which seeks to identify changes in people over a period of time as a result of exposure to college has been limited, for the most part, to changes from the freshman to the senior year. Little research has focused on the post-graduate years, thus limiting a fuller understanding of the impact of college on people. Yet our authors recognize that the fruits of “channeling” (establishing a direction) in college may not be fully realized for years. “For individuals”, Bowen writes, “the outcomes of higher education are harvested over adult lifetimes averaging fifty to sixty years after graduation from college.”

Astin discriminates among the relative impacts of different types of institutions: large, small; public, private; selective, non-selective (in student admissions); two-year, four-year; single-sex, co-educational; predominantly white, predominantly black; religious, secular; and residential, commuter. Readers of Direction will likely be most interested in the impact of the Protestant, non-selective, residential college, most characteristic of Mennonite Brethren colleges, in comparison with other types of colleges.

While Mennonite Brethren have provided schools for their young {52} people, increasing numbers of Mennonite Brethren have chosen educational alternatives available in the public sector—universities, state colleges, community colleges, etc. Astin, interestingly, tends to confirm the suspicions, perhaps more predominant among earlier Mennonite Brethren, about the impact of these alternative institutions. But some of the reasons for feared “negative” impacts may be different than we thought. Smallness, for instance, seems to be significant in itself. “Large institutions,” Astin declares, “tend to increase student liberalism, . . . hedonism, and religious and political apostasy. Small institutions foster a greater degree of altruism and intellectual self-esteem.” In small institutions “students are more likely to interact with faculty, and to achieve in areas such as leadership, athletics, and journalism.”

The characteristic of “altruism” (helping others) is negatively impacted by universities, but positively impacted by Protestant colleges. Astin concludes that “here is a clear case where the impact of a particular type of college on students’ values is consistent with the educational objectives of those colleges: Christian teachings seem entirely consistent with the enhancement of altruistic motives.”

But troublesome results are also found in this research. These results will not be “news” to parents and constituency who are sometimes disturbed by the perceived, negative behaviors of college and university students. These behaviors include “marked decreases in religiousness and increases in hedonism (drinking, smoking, gambling, etc.) after entering college.” In Astin’s profile, specific behaviors include a reduction between the freshman and senior year in church and Sunday School attendance of more than half among all college and university students in his study. The number of students praying frequently or saying grace before meals is reduced by one-third. The number of wine drinkers nearly doubles, beer drinkers increase by fifty percent, cigarette smoking increases by twenty-five percent, etc. Whereas the decline in religious activity is increased by attending prestigious institutions, public two-year colleges and private nonsectarian colleges, the decline is also significant at Protestant colleges. Astin observes that research data presently does not clearly demonstrate whether these changes all persist into adult life, or whether they merely constitute a temporary “sowing of wild oats”. The impact of employment, raising a family, and living in an adult community may later again increase religious behaviors.

Fewer students who continue to live with their parents during college than who live in dormitories experience declines in religious behavior. For the latter, parental and church influence and control seems to be diminished during college. Or, we may conjecture with Astin: “Apparently, the degree of religiousness of some entering . . . {53} Protestant students is less a matter of personal commitment than of direct parental influence and control.”

This is only a glimpse into Astin’s discussion of some 80 possible outcomes of higher education, but perhaps adequate to establish the nature of his work. After reviewing all the data, he concludes that “private institutions seem to foster greater student change than public institutions in almost all areas.”

Mennonite Brethren concerned with the future of our schools will want to ponder Astin’s charge that “virtually every educational policy that comes in conflict with the findings of educational research has been instituted for economic rather than educational reasons . . . A watered-down education program will, more often than not, produce watered-down results.” Students, parents, and local church leaders will want to consider the data behind Astin’s conclusion that “the public community college does not represent an equal education opportunity compared with other types of institutions,” and other data concerning the impact of universities on students. Or, Astin’s declaration that “with the possible exception of getting married and having children, few choices have more far-reaching implications than the decision about college.”

The truth seems to be that our brotherhood is and will be inevitably shaped, not only by the colleges we choose to sponsor, but also by the colleges and universities our young people actually choose to attend.

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