Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Winter 2014 - Volume 17 Number 1
How College Works
Daniel F. Chambliss & Christopher G. Takacs
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
Reviewed by Judith A. Sebesta

The ubiquity of dire predictions of the downfall of the “traditional” college seems to be at a peak. Everywhere one turns, pundits are warning of the need for higher education to stay relevant in the face of proliferating new technologies―particularly ones that offer (albeit sometimes inaccurately) the potential to reduce costs, “scale up,” and increase access.

Books like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses fuel this fire and wave smoke signals to the general public suggesting that the status quo of higher education must change, that a college education is no longer the assurance of a better future. And many of these books offer solutions.

I tend to be quite skeptical of these solutions; there is no one-size-fits-all miracle to “save” higher education. In fact, I am somewhat skeptical that it is even in need of saving. Is change needed? Absolutely, on some levels. Education should always adjust to meet the requirements of changing societies and students with shifting attitudes and skills as well as from varying demographics and backgrounds. Indeed, it should attempt the even more challenging task of predicting how it can serve the needs of future students at the same time.

I applaud current efforts to increase access to degree seekers in all demographics and at all economic levels; participation in higher education is essential to encourage freedom, equality, and opportunity in all societies. Much of what is being done is about opening up options to accommodate an increasingly diverse (in the largest sense of the word) body of degree-seeking students. But options should not be opened up at the expense of quality. We should not sacrifice the “soul” of higher education in the process.

In the Fall 2013 issue of College Quarterly, Howard A. Doughty reviewed McCluskey and Winter’s The Idea of the Digital University: Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education (2013). He insightfully pointed out that pin- pointing exactly what that soul is―what higher education is and for at its essence―is no easy enterprise. Volumes have been written recently on the subject of the purpose(s) of higher education; I myself was in charge of organizing a symposium in February on that very subject, and the conclusion was, I’m afraid to say, that it depends. No easy answers here.

How College Works, by Daniel F. Chambliss & Christopher G. Takacs, does boldly provide one answer, and one that at first glance seems to state the obvious. The authors quite emphatically define the “soul” (although they don’t call it that) of higher education as the people and the connections they make with each other; person-to-person relationships hold the key to collegiate success. Chambliss and Takacs convincingly argue that encounters, even brief ones, with the right person can make a big difference in students’ college careers.

Reform involving “Big Solutions” is all good and well, the authors state, but Chambliss and Takacs argue instead for the “smallest possible solutions yielding the greatest possible impact”; the key is the power of personal contact. Their project is to describe “the crucial experiences of a good undergraduate education and to formulate some effective interventions―methods for improvement―usable by leaders who want to make a difference” (p. 1). “Our goal here is first to discover the mechanisms―the social processes―that lead students down or away from certain pathways, and second to determine how those processes might be leveraged to improve college education” (p. 9).

How College Works is essentially a case study, but one that the authors hope can be applied across higher education institutions (and I think it can, with some limitations outlined below). The three-fold guiding principles behind their methodology are the student (not institution) as the unit of analysis; careful, statistically random sampling of students; and multiple research methods. The students are undergraduates at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Chambliss is a sociologist with thirty years’ experience in researching the social psychology of organizations; Takacs is a former student assistant of his pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology at U of Chicago. Chambliss teaches at Hamilton College, and it is here that he conducted research for this book.

Therefore, they draw on a rather limited data set from a narrow perspective, that of a single institution: small (1800 students), liberal arts, selective, rich (large endowment) and expensive. But they admit that there are cons to this case-study approach, and that Hamilton students are no longer “typical” college students. They recognize that the college fits an older, more “traditional model” of higher education and acknowledge its tenuous relevance to those new models of higher education that shift “the very meaning of words like ‘campus,’ ‘classes,’ ‘college,’ and even ‘university’” (p. 9).

The volume is organized by a defining set of moments in the college careers of the students studied, with chapters on each: entering the community, choosing the academic and social paths to follow, participation in campus groups, learning academic skills, leaving for the “real world.” Throughout, the authors insert excerpts from student interviews, then provide analyses and draw broader conclusions from those. I particularly like the section “The Arithmetic of Engagement,“ in which they argue that small classes, from an administrator perspective, are problematic—and not, surprisingly, merely for financial reasons: “The most reliable educational tool isn’t really small classes; it’s good classes—interesting, motivated, rigorous—that lots of students are actually enrolled in” (p. 77). Descriptive words like “interesting, motivated, and rigorous” aside, identifying “good” classes is fraught, particularly in terms of institutional politics and faculty power structures. But I agree that generally, the best faculty are those who care about the subject and the students (p. 131).

Concomitant is the importance of ensuring that students feel that they matter―as members of a course, the broader college community, society at large, and as human beings. I have taught in a wide range of modalities and environments, from fully online and hybrid, to face-to-face small honors and graduate seminars, as well as large lecture courses. I have found that learning as many students’ names as possible, as soon as possible, has gone a long way toward communicating that I care about each student and that they “matter.” In online classes, learning some details about the life and mind behind the name helps accomplish the same thing.

If “good” classes with passionate, knowledgeable professors who care about students can be identified, I agree with the authors’ “getting as much bang for your buck” mentality. They argue convincingly, again and again, that seemingly small decisions like which courses students take, and when—can have a huge impact on future paths students will take toward success. Not as convincing is their criticism of things I have seen to be highly productive tools for supporting student success, when used effectively: strategic planning, pedagogical innovation, and assessment. Although these can all be abused, they also can focus shared goals and develop consensus; motivate students and faculty alike and provide options for enhanced and diverse instruction and learning; and promote more intentional practices, leading to, again, more “bang for your buck.” If indeed the “fundamental problem in American higher education is no longer the availability of content, but rather the availability of motivation” (173), then the aforementioned can actually help solve this problem.

That criticism aside, a favourite moment is when Chambliss and Takacs take on Arum and Roksa, offering a perspective different from the pessimistic outlook in Academically Adrift on how much students actually learn. Arum and Roksa (2011) argue that, in a nationwide sampling of 2,300 students who took the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), they observed “no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills for at least 45 percent of the students in our study” (p. 36). While they view this as a failure of higher education, the authors of How College Works consider it a success, focusing on the 55% who, according to the study, did see gains.

Their glass-half-full attitude pervades the book, and they conclude by offering six suggestions for leaders and five for students to maximize benefits of college and students’ success (and this book is rather astonishing in the scope of its potential readership). Clearly the good news is that these suggestions can be accomplished with few additional resources. The bad news is that some are difficult to scale. I can’t learn every student’s name in a large General Education face-to-face course of 300. When I recently took (and completed, I am proud to say) Cathy Davidson’s Massive Open Online Course “The History and (Mostly) Future of Higher Education” through Duke University and Coursera, I am sure she never knew I was in the course. MOOCs could have their place in the academy (e.g. for faculty professional development), but are they the best way to offer quality undergraduate education in quantity? I doubt it. But, as we work to ensure access to as many potential degree-seeking students as possible, maintaining quality is a challenge to which we must rise, and the authors have convinced me that whether online or face-to-face, college works best by bringing students together with the right people at the right time.


Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McCluskey, F. B., & Winter, M.L. (2013). The idea of the digital university: Ancient traditions, disruptive technologies and the battle for the soul of higher education. Washington, DC: Westphalia Press.

Judith A. Sebesta is a project manager and policy analyst for the College for All Texans Foundation and Higher Education Policy Institute. She can be reached at