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Reflections on Clark and Trow’s Student Subcultures: 50 Years Later
Kathleen S. Roufs

Sexism, racism, and antiwar sentiments entered everyday vernacular in the 60s. Academic freedom was at the forefront of faculty discussions. Coastal institutions of higher education were incubators of ideas—all kinds of ideas—that included technology, environmentalism, and human rights. Times were exciting!

The 60s also began a period of study of student behavior, student development and identity, and student relationships to their institutions of higher education. Two of the 1960s internationally recognized scholars in higher education and icons (among many) for examining lives and motivations of students were Burton Clark and Martin Trow. Both Clark and Trow were undergraduates at Berkeley, and remained research colleagues throughout their professional lives—Clark became a sociologist at UCLA, and Trow, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1966 Clark and Trow published their seminal work that defined student subcultures, not types of students. They classified students by commonalities and differences, resulting in four typologies: collegiate, vocational, academic, and nonconformist.  Knowledge of the four subcultures assisted in identifying the unique characteristics of each group, and most importantly their relationships to the institution, their relationships to each other, and their interests in intellectual development and ideas. 

Historical Perspective
Students in the collegiate subculture, in the 60s, were social and generally came from middle and upper class well-connected backgrounds, which meant that, with a degree, a job was almost guaranteed. Academically, collegiate students did enough to get by. Many were fraternity and sorority members who attended sporting and university events. Students in the collegiate subculture contributed greatly to school spirit and campus loyalty.

Students in the vocational subculture of the 60s enrolled in institutions to get their degrees as efficiently as possible. Many were working, married with families, and there was simply no time or interest in being involved in collegiate activities. Their attitude toward college was essentially, “just tell me what I need to know to get the degree and get a better job.” 

In the academic subculture, students valued intellectual rigor, prioritized relationships with faculty, and were generally not concerned with potential income as a motivating factor for degree completion. These students were serious. Their motivations were intrinsic: they studied for the sake of learning, thrived on discourse and disagreement, and expected confrontation from others. Many aspired to go on to graduate or professional schools. 

The fourth subculture, as defined by Clark and Trow, was the counter-cultural typology.  Students in the nonconformist subculture often identified themselves by a distinctive look and attitude; they were detached from the campus, the administration, and “the establishment.” The nonconformists were activists, visibly passionate about politics and the Vietnam War, civil rights, and women’s liberation.

Current Observations
Fast-forward about five decades and look at each of these groups through the lenses of our campuses today. What has changed since Clark and Trow identified the types of subcultures? Are they still relevant? Do the current social, economic, technological, and political contexts provide frameworks for other student behaviors and motivations, different from or similar to those of 1960? A cursory “then and now” review is in order to determine the relevance of Clark and Trow’s student subcultures today.

In the 60s, the collegiate subculture, as defined by Clark and Trow, contributed to Greek Life, school spirit, and campus social events, especially at large public universities and at private, Ivy League institutions (Walsh, 1973). Today, the collegiate subculture appears to thrive in greater numbers on all types of campuses; collegiate students support Greek Life events, attendance at athletic competitions, tailgating, and post-event celebrations (Strange and Banning, 2001). Hendel and Harrold (2007) note that in 1976, at a large Midwestern public university, seventeen percent of students identified as collegiate, and in 2006, the percentage nearly doubled to 33 percent. In addition, one easily observes that student affairs events often depend on and develop the leadership skills of the collegiate students, who tend to be involved in campus leadership development and organizations. 

However, in the 60s, college graduates were more likely guaranteed a job with the presentation of a diploma, as Thomas Brock (2010) points out in his article “Barriers and Breakthroughs to Success,” because most graduates were white males who came from well-networked upper and middle class families, at a time when there were far fewer college graduates. Now, the presence of career services on campuses and in students’ lives, the emphasis on “marketable skills,” the job interview coaching and practice videos, and career development courses suggest an earned degree is not necessarily a job guarantee (Pascarella and Taranzini). This factor alone brings to question the priorities, then and now, of collegiate students. Although still probably not the top grade getters, these students today network, get internships, and generally have good “people skills,” that, with time, effort, and good references, most likely will land them an entry level position. Perhaps students today in the collegiate subculture have, by necessity, developed practical self-networking/self-marketing and career building skills.

Then, students in the vocational subculture had two primary goals: to get in and get out (graduate) as efficiently as possible (Walsh, 1973). Now, with greater access to educational institutions and more diversity on campuses, there are more students in the vocational subculture; many veterans, nontraditional students, online degree-seeking students, students returning for degrees or certification, and students with full-time jobs and family obligations want to “get through” as quickly and efficiently as possible. Dramatically increased costs add significantly to the pressure for a quick and efficient collegiate experience. Now, this subculture thrives on our campuses, but is much more diverse than in the 60s, and requires a broader set of accommodations from the academic institution including understanding the needs of veterans, single parents, immigrants, and other nontraditional students.

An academic subculture remains on every campus, but it may be less visible than it was in the 60s. Students in this subculture continue to embrace intellectual rigor, the social sciences and humanities, and theory; they are generally interested in higher-level discussions, lectures (rather than sporting events), and relationships with faculty members. Many of the students in the academic subculture embrace online research and networking rather than pursuing their interests with an identifiable group studying in the library or debating in the coffeehouse until early morning hours, as they did in the 60s (Jones, 2002).

The nonconformist subculture also continues to exist on our campuses, but with different ideologies than in the 60s; today there continue to be students who connect with one another on common causes and in non-conformist manners of thinking. The focus of antiwar sentiment has switched from Vietnam to the Middle East and Afghanistan. Equal rights have broadened from women’s liberation and racial equality to LGBT rights, underrepresented populations and immigration issues, and other diversity concerns. In the 60s, long hair and hippie-style clothing that included tie-dyed shirts, and bell-bottom pants were visible statements against “the establishment.” Now, most of us do not identify signature looks as a political statement—there are still students who are passionate about making statements (witness the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement or political rallies on campuses), but most tend not to make the statement by acquiring a certain look. 

Today, Viewing Subcultures through a Broader Lens
Characteristics of students today, which include diverse (cultural identity, race, gender, religion, orientation, interest, age), on campus or online enrollments, national status, special talents (athletes, artists, actors), socio/political awareness, and digital natives (born into the digital culture), need to be included in defining current students. However, the purpose of Clark and Trow’s four fundamental definitions, like other typologies, was to simplify for comparison, enable exploration, and potentially to promote better understanding of the academic experience. Although descriptions of students on campuses today include more characteristics than those used to describe students in the 60s, the subcultures, as defined by Clark and Trow, remain relevant; what motivates students, how they relate to their institution, to each other, and to ideas are germane to the student academic experience today. 

If we agree that the subcultures frame past and current types of students, one could use, for example, “diverse,” as a characteristic describing students today. Individual students are increasingly diverse and more complex, in academic institutions that have also become more diverse and complex. Today, there are students of diverse ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, and world views, full time and part time, some are enrolled in massive open online courses (MOOCs) and others in online colleges, proprietary institutions, community colleges, technical institutes and institutions, public and private colleges and universities, institutions with multiple campuses, often international, and tribal colleges. There are also programs for members of the military, prisoners, degree completion, certification, and transfer students, to name a few. However one describes the “diverse” student today, that student fits into one of the four subcultures, depending on what motivates him or her, how s/he relates to peers, the institution, and ideas—the bases of Clark and Trow’s subcultures. 

Another characteristic affecting students in all subcultures today is the profound ubiquitous use of technology. Now, students do not need to come together physically on campuses to form connected communities, as they did in the 60s. They do so electronically through Facebook, Pinterest, texting, tweeting, and communicating through other electronic media.  In the 60s, solitaire was the game of choice if one desired some solitude. In solitaire, there was a beginning and an end. Today, “gaming” can keep students up night after night, playing games that do not end. Even students on campus are able to isolate themselves with iPads, iPods, earphones, smartphones, and other user interface bubbles. Students may not need to express themselves in classroom discourse; rather, they have only to click “like,” insert an emoticon, Tweet a comment on what they, or others, think, or anonymously rant on a web page. Students do not even need the classroom experience to learn or to earn academic credentials. Technology often encourages people to connect to academic or collegiate groups at the same time the digital media suggests they have more "friends" than ever who are connected to each other. 

Technology is also changing how students learn, and one of the manifestations is less focus on a physical peer group and learning with that group, to more focus on interaction with technology and distance camaraderie. The overriding technological contexts bring students with different perspectives to the current higher learning paradigm. In this paradigm, students focus on their social media networks for conversation and affirmation rather than physically meeting friends. In this paradigm also, students tend to self-select their groups and gravitate toward groups who reinforce their points of view, rather than having their ideas and attitudes confronted or challenged (witness, for example, the fan base for FOX news, or talk show hosts who tell their fans exactly what they want to hear). 

When it comes to learning, in the words of Marc Prensky, “Digital Natives accustomed to the twitch-speed, multitasking, random-access, graphics-first, active, connected, fun, fantasy, quick-payoff world of their video games, MTV, and Internet are bored by most of today’s education, well meaning as it may be. "...The cognitive differences of the Digital Natives cry out for new approaches to education with a better fit” (2001, p.5). None of these thoughts should suggest today’s students are isolated: they are not. They simply suggest a different way of connecting and learning. Students center on self-discovery through development of their own career skills, and their own personal development of networks, focused on their own professional and life advancement, or perhaps, even on their own alternate online virtual persona. Students today, no matter how sophisticated their technology abilities and interests, fit into one of the subcultures, depending on what motivates them, how they relate to each other, to the institution, and to ideas.

What motivates todays’ students, how they relate to each other, to the institution, and to ideas also applies to another characteristic: their socio/political awareness. Today, socio/political awareness (which was probably birthed in the campus activism of the 60s), is an awareness that stems from a global perspective, but is also different from the 60s because of the availability of instant international information, sometimes of dubious veracity and authenticity. Of course, there are discussions among today’s students about corporate ethics, GLBT issues, global warming, and current events such as the "Black Lives Matter" movement and immigration, but nothing compares —yet — to the issues of Women's Rights, Civil Rights, and anti-Viet Nam protests of the 60s, which created campus cultures that united a majority of students across the nation around a single cause. Students today often get their news on social media outlets (i.e. Facebook) (Irvine, 2015) (Jarvis, 2015), which also allow users to show their support and solidarity with temporary filters on profile pictures. Some notable examples of this include a rainbow filter after the Supreme Court ruling allowing same sex marriage, and the French Flag filter following the terrorist attacks in Paris. But it takes much more than a filter on a Facebook photo to inspire political activism and public demonstrations comparable to those of the 60s. 

And Finally . . . .
The subcultures, as defined by Clark and Trow, remain effective in helping understand students. However, the lenses through which we “see” our current students need to be more broad, less myopic. Clark and Trow’s four defined groups were comprehensive in the 60s, but 50 years later, they include many more diverse student characteristics in many more diverse institutional types. One also needs to acknowledge the overriding characteristics that differ from the 60s: the influence of technology and changes in the socio-political environments not only allow, and sometimes encourage, students to be more self-focused, but they also dominate interactions between and among students of all subcultures. So, although it is apparent that Clark and Trow’s subcultures persist, it should come as no surprise that much is different. The subcultures that framed student groups for over five decades, with some expansion of the lenses through which we look, will continue to do so.  Clark and Trow, indeed, were academic visionaries, whose early visions need only modest refractions to provide clearer insight into how the subcultures help us understand the students today.


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Yang, S. (March 2, 2007). Martin Trow, leading scholar in higher education studies, dies at 80. Berkeley News. Retrieved from

Zusman, Ami ((2005).  Challenges facing higher education in the twenty-first century.  American Higher Education in the twenty-First Century.  2nd Ed.  Philip G. Altback, Robert O. Berdahl, and Patricia J. Gumport (Eds).  pp.115 – 134.

The author would like to thank Kathleen Nelson, EdD, President of Lake Superior College Emerita; Michael Dorner, PhD, CFO and faculty member at Concordia University; and Rusty Fox, PhD, Dean, Student Success, at Mountain View College for their observations and insights which led to this article.

Cite this using APA style as:

Roufs, K.S. (2016). Reflections on Clark and Trow's student subcultures: 50 years later. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:

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