An Unintended but Lasting Effect of a College Education

Admissions officials are often reminded of advantages that higher education can bring to students. These unquestionably include substantially higher lifetime earnings, ability to think critically and a broadened outlook. But research shows that the college experience can have an impact that neither students nor parents anticipate. It’s important for administrators, faculty and admissions officials to understand this effect, since they want to truly help those they educate.

Learning more than academics

A point observed by many is backed by science. Social psychologist and textbook author Dr. David Myers writes, “The teens and early twenties are important formative years (Krosnick & Alwin, 1989). Attitudes are changeable during that time and the attitudes formed then tend to stabilize through middle adulthood.” Research beside that quoted here by Dr. Myers bears this out. For although some adults clearly change their opinions and beliefs, convictions formed during the college years have proved remarkably resilient.

Researcher James Davis (2004) combed through the National Opinion Research Center archives and found, for instance, that Americans who reached age 16 during the 1960s became more politically liberal than average and maintained that view for many years.

This validates a groundbreaking study conducted with students from Bennington College. During the 1930s and early 1940s, Bennington students were primarily women from wealthier, more conservative families. The young professors who taught them leaned toward leftist political views. Their influence was strong and its effects long-lasting. Bennington women became much more liberal than others from the same social background. Some fifty years later, in the 1984 presidential election, Bennington alumnae in their 70s voted Democratic by a 3 to 1 margin while the same percentage of college educated women in that age group voted Republican. Dr. Myers noted, “Their views embraced at an impressionable time had survived a lifetime of wider experience.”

This highlights the power the college experience has to impact young people, perhaps for the rest of their lives. As often noted, this learning is not done in the classroom alone. Roommates, fraternity/sorority members and others can exert considerable influence as well, as illustrated by research conducted at Columbia University. It asked subjects, alone in a darkened room, to estimate how much a pinpoint of light moved. This was an optical illusion – natural movement of their eyes made the stationary light appear to shift.

Understandably, estimates varied widely - until researcher Muzafer Sherif put subjects in groups and asked them to look again. Participants were surprised that their companions’ assessments were so different than theirs. But soon each group reached a middle-of-the-road compromise. When invited back a year later, each group member estimated the light’s movement by themselves, but still stuck to the group’s viewpoint. As eminent social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson put it, “These results suggest that people were relying on each other to define reality and came to privately accept the group estimate.”

Thus, students who come to campus for a degree in nursing, business or engineering may receive an education they didn’t expect. We ourselves may find that some of our views still reflect opinions expressed by professors and college friends. Said Dr. Myers, “Young people might therefore be advised to choose their social influences - the groups they join, the media they imbibe, the roles they adopt – carefully.” This research also highlights the serious responsibility institutions have toward undergraduate students. The entire college experience will mold their thinking. Do they realize that? Will all the features of that mold truly benefit them?

The Allied Group is a higher education marketing firm offering Search, Conversion and Yield Programs to the admissions community.

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