Sociology professor Dan Chambliss in Kirner-Johnson at Hamilton College on Wednesday, December 12, 2012. (PHOTO BY NANCY L. FORD)

‘How College Works’

Earlier this year, Daniel Chambliss, co-author of the acclaimed book, “How College Works,” participated in a virtual Team Up session for Punahou parents looking for insight on what leads to student success in college. During the Webex, Chambliss – a longtime sociology professor at Hamilton College in New York – discussed the vital role that relationships play in college. His views are based on an extensive 10-year study at Hamilton, as well as research from other schools nationwide.

Co-written by Christopher Takacs, the book is considered groundbreaking in its findings. Harvard University Press named it the 2014 book of the year in its Education and Society category, while The Chronicle of Higher Education cited it as one of the Top 10 Books on Teaching the same year.

Chambliss says what surprises people most about his research is that facilities, curriculum and programs are not the drivers of success in college. What does matter are the relationships that students make while attending college. “A college exists to bring people together and help them meet each other, and the relationships a student forms in college are critical,” Chambliss said.

To succeed in college, a student primarily needs a couple of friends. “We say two or three friends; one is critical. If students don’t have friends, the evidence is just really, really strong – the whole game is over,” Chambliss said.

Students also need one or two great teachers. Thus, instead of choosing classes by topic, college students would be better served taking classes taught by the best teachers. The pivotal Gallup-Purdue Index, which surveyed thousands of college graduates to measure the most important outcomes of higher education, found that the single biggest thing that mattered was having a mentor, a trusted adult whom a student could tap for guidance.

“Friends and teachers drive student motivation, and that’s what produces success, not just in college, but in life,” Chambliss said. “Relationships are the daily motivators in college. This is what gets kids out of bed in the morning. They have friends they’re going to have breakfast with, then they go to class for a professor who they like and think is interesting. You’ve got to be motivated. If you don’t have that, all the other stuff doesn’t matter.”

When students don’t make friends, their learning suffers, as well as their attitude toward school. Often, these students will either drop out of school or transfer.

Thus, when selecting a college, students should research the type of people who attend different schools. “If you want to be an Army officer, you should go to West Point,” Chambliss said. “If you want to be a computer scientist, maybe you should go to Stanford or Carnegie Mellon or wherever. Look for the kind of people whom you like.”

Overall, he adds, “Don’t be buffaloed by all the stuff on the website about, we have this major, that major. What you really want to know is, who goes to this school and what are the professors like?”

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