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Drs. Alexander & Helen Astin, University of California, Los Angeles

2015 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Keynote Speakers

Alexander-Astin-144x150.jpgDr. Alexander Astin is Allan M. Cartter Professor of Higher Education Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles and founding director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. He has served as Director of Research for both the American Council on Education and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. He is also the founding director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), HERI’s ongoing national study of college students, faculty, and institutions. Dr. Astin has authored 21 books and more than 300 other publications in the field of higher education, and has been a recipient of awards for outstanding research from more than a dozen national associations and professional societies. He has also been elected to membership in the National Academy of Education, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and a recipient of eleven honorary degrees. A 1990 study in the Journal of Higher Education identified Dr. Astin as the most frequently-cited author in the field of higher education.


Helen-Astin-144x150.jpgDr. Helen S. Astin is Distinguished Professor Emeritus  at the University of California, Los Angeles, Senior Scholar of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, and co-founder of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program. She is a recipient of the Distinguished Research Award of the Division J of the the American Education Research Association and has received the Howard Bowen Distinguished Career Award from the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Dr. Astin has been a trustee of Mt. St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles and Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Additionally, Dr. Astin has served as the President of the Society for the Psychology of Women for the American Psychological Association and has served as the Chair of the Board of the American Association for Higher Education. Currently, Professors Helen S. Astin and Alexander W. Astin are Co-Principal Investigators of a multi-year research study funded by the John Templeton Foundation entitled “Spirituality in Higher Education: A National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose.”

 How did you and Dr. Helen Astin meet one another?

Lena and I met as graduate students studying for our doctorates in psychology at the University of Maryland.

What was your involvement like when attending college? How do you think this contributed to your successes?

Sandy, a music major as an undergraduate, was heavily involved in musical activities: the college choir (he was the student manager), the college barbershop quartet (he was the leader), the college’s male glee club (which he organized and conducted), and a madrigal group (which he organized and conducted for his senior recital). While all this musical activity was not directly related to his later work as a researcher, the fact that he was also involved in organizing and directing musical ensembles helped to prepare him for his later role in founding and running large scale research activities such as the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), ACE’s Office of Research, and UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). Lena, as a new immigrant from Greece who did not know any English and had little money, was primarily focused on survival: learning the new language quickly enough to pass her college courses (she eventually graduated with honors), and holding down several part-time and summer jobs. Acculturation was also a major challenge.

Astin & Oseguera (2004) find that students from wealthier families were increasingly overrepresented in elite institutions, while students of lower socioeconomic statuses have been underrepresented for the past twenty years. What factors have contributed to this under-representation and how can higher education increase access for low income students?

In trying to pursue simultaneously the twin goals of equity and excellence, American higher education has created a dilemma for itself. On the one hand, colleges have traditionally defined their “excellence” in terms of selectivity and exclusivity: the most “excellent” institutions are assumed to be the ones where it is most difficult to gain admission and whose students earn the highest test scores. On the other hand, admitting more poor students tends to lower test scores, given that poor students on average earn lower school grades and lower scores on admissions tests than do more affluent students. The pursuit of equity thus constitutes a threat to selectivity, while the continuing pursuit of excellence makes it more difficult to achieve greater equity.

When addressing the inequality of access in the United States, do you think higher education institutions are narrowing the disparity or exacerbating the problem? Is there anything that can be done so that colleges and universities can help address the inequality issues?

As long as colleges and universities insist on defining “excellence” in terms of the admissions test scores and/or school grades of their entering students, the goal of greater equity will be in conflict with the pursuit of excellence. Sandy’s suggested resolution of this dilemma (see Achieving Educational Excellence, Jossey-Bass, 1985) is to redefine “excellence” in educational terms, i.e., as the capacity of an institution to educate its students to their fullest potential. He has called this the “talent development” approach to defining excellence. Under this definition, one institution’s success in educating its students in no way detracts from the success of any other institution, and all institutions can achieve a high level of excellence regardless of their level of selectivity. However, given how strongly committed most institutions are to maintaining and enhancing their selectivity and exclusivity, prospects for achieving significantly greater equity seem dim.

How do you think access to higher education has changed?

Elite (highly selective) institutions are becoming even more selective, while community colleges and non-selective four-year colleges enroll most of the poor students. Since the most elite institutions actively seek out underrepresented minority students, they tend to monopolize that relatively limited pool of underrepresented students who happen to be very well prepared. The emphasis here, of course is on the student’s race/ethnicity rather than socioeconomic status. (There are, of course, fewer poor students among the best-prepared minority students.) Moderately selective institutions therefore have the hardest time recruiting underrepresented minority students. It appears that middle class students are being squeezed out of elite institutions and replaced by more affluent students. The enrollment of poor students in elite institutions, on the other hand, remains at the same (low) level, probably because of affirmative action and financial aid practices.

Do you think a student’s input, such as their demographics and background, play a larger role in their success than a student’s experience in college?

It depends on the type of college they attend and the circumstances of attendance. When students attend a commuter institution or attend college on a part-time basis, then background characteristics play a bigger role. If a student attends a residential institution on a full time basis, then the college experiences play a much bigger role.

Can you talk about the multi-year research study “Spirituality in Higher Education: A National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose.”

There is much that one could say about this study. [We refer you to our book Cultivating the Spirit: How Colleges Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2011)] and the white paper, Attending to Students’ Inner Lives: A Call to Higher Education (see www.spirituality.ucla.edu), which summarizes the main findings and implications of the study We believe that the study clearly documents the importance of students’ spiritual development in higher education, and points to several specific ways in which institutions can and should be attempting to enhance students’ spiritual development.

How do you think spirituality is supported in higher education?

The support is both direct and indirect. Direct support—conscious attempts to enhance spiritual development—is still relatively rare, although it seems to be on the increase. Indirect support occurs in many ways: service learning, study abroad, the use of reflection and contemplative practices.

What do you believe should be the next step for research in student affairs?

More student affairs research could look at the student’s “interior” development: values, aspirations, life goals, beliefs, sense of meaning and purpose, etc. Mini-experiments involving planned attempts to enhance students’ spiritual qualities could also be implemented and evaluated.