Effects of a College Education

A college education has numerous impacts on an individual other than just a better education.

Individuals who have attended college and graduated tend to be more successful in life than those who didn’t. There have been studies through the years that provide evidence showing that a college education can be very beneficial to a person and have major impacts on their lives. The most comprehensive review to date on the question of the impact of college is found in Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini’s book, How College Affects Students.They used over twenty-six thousand practical studies completed over a period of 50 years in order to what aspects of a person’s life is affected during college. They concluded that an individual’s cognitive skills and intellectual growth; changes of identity, self-concept, and self-esteem; changes in relating to others and the people around them, attitudes and values, moral development, career choice and development, economic benefits, and quality of life after college are all affected while the student attends college.The details concerning cognitive skills and intellectual growth suggest that “students make statistically significant gains during the college years on a number of dimensions of general cognitive capabilities and skills” (p. 155), including the ability to deal with conceptual complexity, formal abstract reasoning, critical thinking, the use of evidence and reason to address ill-structured problems, and both written and oral communication.

Most of these benefits seem to occur during the first two years of college.Research on the net effects, or changes that can be accredited to the college experience itself, rather than other potential influences, of these outcomes suggests that college has a “net positive influence on diverse measures of critical thinking” (p. 156), reflective judgment, and intellectual flexibility, above the maturity level of individuals who didn’t attend college. Perhaps “college is the one [experience] that most typically provides an overall environment where the potential for intellectual growth is maximized” (p. 156).Although the may not be dramatic, changes concerning identity, self-concept, and self-esteem during the college years consistently support a significant positive effect, are evident. The evidence tends to support generally linear gains in academic and social self-concepts, as well as “students’ beliefs about themselves in such areas as their popularity in general and with the opposite sex, their leadership abilities, their social self-confidence, and their understanding of others” (p.

203). In addition, they gain in self-esteem.With the caveat that much of the research on the net effects of college on these particular outcomes is too often confounded by age and normal maturation, and absent controls for family background or other relevant characteristics, Pascarella and Terenzini concluded that “post-secondary educational attainment appears to be related positively to changes in students’ ratings of themselves relative to their peers” (p. 204), in terms of both academic self-concept and social self-concept. Such effects, however, appear to be small, mostly indirect, and interrelated with other characteristics.As far as changes in relating to others and the world around them, Pascarella and Terenzini concluded that, “students’ relational systems change during the college years,” including increases in “students’ freedom from the influences of others, … in non-authoritarian thinking and tolerance for other people and their views, in intellectual orientation to problem solving and their own world view in general, in the maturity of their interpersonal relations, in their personal adjustment skills and general sense of psychological well-being, and in their more globally measured levels of maturity and personal development” (p. 57).

It is believed that “the early college years may be somewhat more influential than the later ones” in their effect on these outcomes. The authors also state that “the weight of evidence therefore fairly clearly supports popular beliefs about the effects of college in helping to reduce students’ authoritarianism, dogmatism, and (perhaps) ethnocentrism and in increasing their intellectual orientation, personal psychological adjustment, and sense of psychological well-being” (p. 259).

One of the more ample topics concerning research on the impact of college over the decades has focused on charting changes in the values and attitudes of students in five general areas:

  1.  cultural, aesthetic, and intellectual;
  2. educational and occupational;
  3. social and political;
  4. religious; and
  5. sex and gender roles

Pascarella and Terenzini found that the evidence for change during the college years is both plentiful and consistent, in that “colleges, as their founders and supporters might hope, appear to have a generally liberating influence on students’ attitudes and values.Without exception, the nature and direction of the observed changes involve greater breadth, expansion, inclusiveness, complexity, and appreciation for the new and different. In all cases, the movement is toward greater individual freedom: artistic and cultural, intellectual, political, social, racial, educational, occupational, personal, and behavioral” (p.326).The research on the net effects of college support a consistent but modest influence “above and beyond the characteristics students bring with them to college,” as well as independent of “changes that have occurred in the larger society” (p. 326) Long considered an important goal of American higher education, the character education and moral development of students has only recently gained the systematic attention of researchers.Evidence to date suggests that “college is linked with statistically significant increases in the use of principled reasoning to judge moral issues,” and that the college experience itself has a unique positive net influence on such development and may be accentuated differentially, from one institution to another, through the student peer context. Furthermore, the key to within-college effects in fostering moral reasoning may “lie in providing a range of intellectual, cultural, and social experiences from which a range of different students might potentially benefit” (p. 66), such as certain curricular or course interventions.Conditional effects in that regard are, in particular, more positive for those of high levels of cognitive development.

Nevertheless, any influence in that direction seems to be long-term and consistent, and may even be linked ultimately to “a range of principled behaviors, including resisting cheating, social activism, keeping contractual promises, and helping those in need” (p. 367). Individuals may change their career paths or interests while attending college. It is clear that students frequently change their career plans during college,” and that they “become significantly more mature, knowledgeable, and focused during college in thinking about planning for a career” (pp. 487–488).In terms of net influence, one of the “most pronounced and unequivocal effects of college on career is its impact on the type of job one obtains” (p. 488), offering an advantage through occupational status and influence.

Whether by socialization or certification a college education offers access to better positioned, and potentially more satisfactory, mployment. Study of the economic benefits has also attracted the attention of post-secondary education researchers, especially since this factor “probably underlies the motivation of many students who choose to attend college rather than enter the work force immediately after high school graduation” (p. 500). In terms of net effects, it appears that a bachelor’s degree “provides somewhere between a twenty and forty percent advantage in earnings over a high school diploma” and an estimate of financial return on such an investment is “somewhere between 9. and 10. 9 percent” (p. 529).

As I’ve said before, a college education has numerous impacts on an individual other than just a better education. Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, while not the first to do so, are two people who have studied research to find the impact of a college education. Their research actually has evidence to support the argument that a college education is a valuable thing.

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