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Read About How You Can Make College Better

Most conversations about college reform feature broad ideas. But what can people and institutions do, realistically, to make college a better experience? How does college actually work?

Welcome to another edition of The Chronicle Book Club. This round, we’re reading How College Works, a book about small changes professors, administrators, and institutions can make to dramatically improve the student experience. The authors, Daniel Chambliss (@DanFChambliss) and Chris Takacs (@ChrisGTakacs), who followed a cohort of students for a decade, will be guiding our discussion on the blog and on Twitter.

Mr. Chambliss is a professor of sociology at Hamilton College, and Mr. Takacs is a former Hamilton student, now a University of Chicago doctoral student.

In addition to the authors, we’ll have five featured participants who will contribute to the Twitter discussion, and possibly join in in other ways. We’re excited to have them lend their expertise to the discussion. They are:

Please note the reading schedule on the right-hand side of your screen. The Twitter conversation will take place on the #ChronBooks hashtag.

Below are some words from the authors.

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From Daniel Chambliss:

What can one person do—realistically, without more time, money, or power—to dramatically expand what students get from their college experience?  Is there a leverage point where pushing a little can produce big improvements? Chris Takacs and I, aided by a faculty research team and scores of student assistants, followed nearly 100 students over 10 years through college and afterward, in life, to see what were the crucial experiences and decisive turning points where a small intervention could matter most.

Most college reform efforts are big, expensive, uncertain in outcome, and politically complicated. But we were searching for actions that are reliable, powerful, available to anyone, and cheap: not showy but effective.  Very few college employees can totally revamp the curriculum, or spend $100-million on facilities, or persuade an entire faculty to change its pedagogical habits. But all of us, with the right approach, can actually get results  across the entire range of potential benefits of a college experience.

To find such solutions, one needs to understand what happens to students on the ground. You need to understand, in our phrase, “how college works.” Not ideally but actually. That’s what our book tries to explain.

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From Chris Takacs:

In How College Works, Dan and I attempt to draw attention to a level of educational policy that research on education often ignores. Instead of proposing grand, sweeping educational overhauls or pedagogical changes, we ask what college leaders can reasonably do with limited resources to improve the student experience.

Our answer consists of a set of small, inexpensive, and effective changes that can be put in place by college leaders, administrators, and faculty. These changes leverage both student behavior and the social organization of colleges to help guide students down pathways that lead to positive outcomes, and away from pitfalls along the way.

The goal of the book is not to take on problems of social class and inequality in higher education, to call for greater federal  and state funding for education, or to overhaul the financial-aid system that cripples students with debt. We applaud these extremely important goals, the subject of numerous excellent books and papers, but also recognize that they are far beyond the scope of what an individual college leader can reasonably do. Our suggestions don’t come at the expense of other solutions but should instead be combined with them whenever possible. In focusing the project in this way, what we may have sacrificed in terms of scope, we hope to have gained in terms of the ease with which college leaders can carry out these ideas. Having found new solutions, we think it was worth it.

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