A Question of Place

Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm

While working on a grant application recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time thinking about settings, the places where students (hopefully) learn. Settings are typically thought of as the environments in which individuals experience life, where developmental processes take place. This led me to wonder, in today's world what constitutes a “setting” in postsecondary education?

While in the past, college attendance was for a select group only—those who could afford to live at school and enroll in classes with little time devoted to work—this is no longer the case. The fastest growing enrollment is at nonresidential 2-year colleges, where students mix class attendance with heavy work schedules and participate in student activities only to a limited extent. Research at the widely attended, less-selective 4-year state colleges reveals that such behaviors are increasingly common there as well (for example, check out ethnographies by Nathan and Clydesdale). In addition, a substantial number of students now enroll at multiple colleges—switching between them, combining attendance, and cycling in and out (for more, see my research on this in the 2006 and 2009 editions of Sociology of Education). In this new postsecondary environment, what constitutes the “setting” in which college takes place? Is “college” anything more than a time period partly characterized by some (intermittent) periods of schooling beyond high school?

I really don't know. But I was intrigued to read on the New York Times website this morning about Student Union 34, a new website that purports to bring together the 34 Philadelphia colleges and their students. The motto: "34 colleges, 1 city: College life in Philadelphia."

Is there such a thing as a "life"? Probably not. But I really like the idea of an attempt to connect students from so many different kinds of colleges and universities-- not to mention Philadelphia Community College. As a Penn alum, I can attest that Philadelphia is an absolutely fantastic place to get an education. Forget the classroom and go wander Baltimore Avenue in West Philly, or spend time volunteering in North Philly (in my case, at a needle-change and condom distribution program). Explore the many locally-owned BYO restaurants, the vibrant concert scene, and the neighborhoods full of folks who've lived there for lifetimes. The sociologist in me was in pig heaven. I miss the place tremendously.

As life goes on outside campus, academic studies tend to continue an emphasis on institutional effects (despite not finding them particularly strong predictors of student outcomes) and interventions to enhance college life continue to proliferate (see, for example, the widespread use of learning communities). This should make us wonder: to what extent can these on-campus efforts be effective for students who experience college in “momentary and marginal ways” because of factors that lie beyond the characteristics or practices of the college itself (the quote is from Nathan, 2005)? Should we instead focus on helping students construct lives in other, meaningful ways?