Book by Alexander Astin
Review by Jon Kleinman
Academic Advisor
SUNY College at Old Westbury

The rising costs of a college education, combined with a climate of economic insecurity, have led many students, parents and public policy makers to question its value. More than ever, academic advisors find themselves facing students and parents who view college as nothing more than a stepping stone to a high paying career. Today’s economic climate is forcing many college administrators to adopt an “industrial” (p 16) model of higher education that measures colleges’ impact solely by the number of graduates they produce. What Matters in College, a comprehensive study of the ways college attendance affects students’ intellectual and personal development, demonstrates that higher education has a broad impact that goes beyond producing degrees and job credentials.

Alexander Astin, the text’s author, is a founding director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP). As Astin explains, CIRP is the largest ongoing study of the Amercan Educational system; it includes longitudinal data from over 500,000 students and uses a national sample of more than 1300 institutions. CIRP obtains its data by administering a comprehensive questionnaire to college freshmen and conducting a posttest upon graduation. The survey includes over 80 measures of attitudes, values, behavior and student satisfaction. In What Matters in College, Astin seeks to use CIRP data to address the questions and concerns many have raised about the value of higher education in today’s challenging economic climate. 

As a longtime education researcher, Astin excels at presenting and cataloging data. The drawback to this approach is that What Matters in College sometimes reads like an exhaustive list of variables and correlations. Although the style and presentation may seem daunting, academic advisors will still find a text offering insight into the issues and concerns they face at their educational institutions. For example, this reviewer’s college is in the process of evaluating and possibly revising its general education curriculum. Astin presents a great deal of data on how college curricula affect students’ academic development and level of overall satisfaction. Required coursework in ethnic or Third World studies, as well as the experience of discussing racial issues with someone from another ethnic group, are correlated with increased satisfaction with the college experience and an increased commitment to promoting racial understanding. Students self reported critical thinking ability is positively correlated with taking writing intensive classes and coursework stressing the classics of western civilization.

At this reviewer’s institution, some professors have suggested that a revised general education curriculum should lead to more opportunities for lower division students to take courses taught by full time faculty. Astin demonstrates that increased interaction with faculty increases students’ intellectual self esteem and satisfaction with college. He stresses the importance of a “student oriented” (pp 47-48) faculty that is interested in student problems and accessible outside of the classroom. He notes that student orientation is “by far the strongest environmental effect on student satisfaction with faculty” (p 281). The amount of time spent talking with faculty outside of class is positively correlated with student satisfaction.

While more synthesis and analysis of the raw data would have been helpful for readers without a research background, What Matters in College is a valuable reference tool for academic advisors who are interested in learning about the personal and intellectual development of their students.

What Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited. (1993). Book by Alexander Astin. Review by Jon Kleinman. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 482 pp., ISBN 978-0-7879-0838-6
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