Practice for Life: Making Decisions in College begins with the observation that college doesn’t just start one day during orientation week and then end ceremonially some years later. Instead, argue authors Lee Cuba, Nancy Jennings, Suzanne Lovett, and Joseph Swingle, college is “a liminal space and place in which students make lots of decisions that serve as practice for the many more they will make as older adults.” The case they make for the enduring value of liberal education is novel and unconventional, but—as they acknowledge early on—their book enters a not-uncrowded space. So why read yet another book on higher education? In the brief excerpt below, they address the question head-on.
Over the past twenty years, many thoughtful, insightful, and field-changing books have been published on virtually every aspect of the college experience. While we have learned much from these and use them throughout to contextualize our own analysis, we believe that our research makes a number of unique contributions to the field of higher education that will interest parents, students, faculty, administrators, and researchers. Our analysis is based on narratives of the student experience that we constructed from repeated interviews with a diverse group of over 200 students who thrived, struggled, or stalled at various points during their college years. Because we interviewed students every semester while they were in college, we were able to gather enormously rich and detailed information about student decision-making. Why did you choose this course, this major, this advisor? Why did you choose to live with these friends, join these organizations, or study abroad? What is most on your mind as you start the school year? And because we asked these questions (and many others) in “real time,” we believe that the answers students gave constitute a valid account of their college experience.
Although you will hear from over one hundred students in this book, you will get to know a much smaller number—around twenty—fairly well. The longer narratives we have written about this group demonstrate that students find engaging academic experiences, advisors, friends, balance, or a sense of home in different places and via different routes. They also demonstrate that students’ academic engagement, friendships, advisor relationships, experience of time and balance, or sense of home often change over time. We chose some of these students because their narratives were similar to those of many of their peers. We chose others because they were in many respects outliers. Regardless of their typical or atypical nature, each of these students’ college experiences offers something instructive about the process of becoming liberally educated.