The Bulletin recently interviewed Alexander Astin, a leading higher education researcher. He is most well-known for his student involvement theory and has authored more than 20 books. He is currently the Allan M. Carter professor of higher education emeritus at the University of California–Los Angeles, the institution at which he founded the Higher Education Research Institute. Astin’s most recent work focused on students’ spiritual development.
Bulletin: How does involvement in student organizations or student employment impact development?
Astin:It helps students become more involved with the institution rather than just a visitor who comes to take classes. That is the most important part: students become part of the functioning of the institution and feel more identified with it. Plus, it will bring them into contact with students more often than if they just took classes.
Bulletin: How has involvement changed over the years?
Astin: E-learning and a lot of proprietary colleges have detracted considerably from the opportunities that students have for the traditional type of engagement. In that sense, engagement has declined. Also, I think technology has served the same function of keeping students physically separate from each other, with their noses in their cell phones or computers.
Bulletin: What do you think motivates students to become more involved in their learning and development?
Astin: I don’t think the students look at it that way. I don’t think most students are actively searching for ways to become more involved. Some are. But in general, the institution determines that—whether they encourage students to become involved actively and create structures that have that affect on students.
Student unions are, of course, a major way to do this. There are some student unions where practically every student has some contact with it during the day. If it is a well-designed and well-run union, it serves to bring students in contact with one another.
Bulletin: How might institutions improve the ways in which they engage students?
Astin: To be sure, they could be more thoughtful about how they program unions. Or when building new ones, be intentional about the location and the design of the interiors, the entrances, and the common spaces. That can have a major effect on the amount of utilization that takes place.
For example, if it’s difficult to navigate around the interior, that can cause students to go to their destination and then leave rather than be exposed to other parts of the functions of the union. Sometimes I just stroll through a union and think about if they just relocated this office or this facility or put a bulletin board up here, it might get students' attention.
Bulletin: What, if any, correlations do you see between your work on the theory of involvement and the work on students’ spiritual development?
Astin: In many ways, I think our work on spirituality has expanded our notions about involvement. If you look at our main finding, it is clear that meditation and contemplation and reflection are very powerful forms of involvement as far as a student’s spiritual life is concerned. Those happen to be forms that students can engage in by themselves—though there is plenty of group reflection and meditation as well.
This represents a new form of involvement that we really haven’t discussed or utilized in higher education very much. It turned out to be the most powerful type of influence on spiritual growth. If you could pick only one form of involvement, this would be my vote as far as heightening student involvement in the institution and in the educational process.
Bulletin: What role do those who advise or supervise students have in facilitating spiritual development?
Astin: Students are busy, and even in what may be downtime, they are texting away or whatever. Once a day, they need to go find a quiet place and even for just five minutes, be quiet and do a little reflecting. Just to be by yourself and quiet without any electronic devices. That can be an extreme value to your everyday life. If you carry a cell phone with you, it is hard to resist the temptation of not having a conversation or otherwise engaging. That wasn’t true 10 years ago. That is a big change.
Think about creative ways to give students the opportunity and encourage students to engage in reflection and meditation. Have designated spaces in the unions where students can do this that are not necessarily religious in nature—just quiet places. And also, encourage organizations to form that might be engaged in this work. That is what is most needed in this time. And folks that run the unions are in a good position to have an effect.
Bulletin: How can professionals help students consider spirituality without crossing the line?
Astin: That is a common concern that people express. Our experience has been that it is really, with a little thoughtfulness, not a serious obstacle. When you talk to students who engage in some type of spiritual reflection or engagement, it is a very different thing from formal religious involvement. Many people as part of their religion do this, but the activity itself is not necessarily religious.
What I mean by that is to talk about the meaning of your life, the purpose. Why are you in school? What do you want to accomplish with your life? Who are you? What kind of person are you? These are the big questions that every student has to confront. Very often, we can go through undergraduate work and never put any thought into it, when really these are fundamental questions. And for some students, these may involve religion, but not for all. These are not fundamentally religious questions. They don’t have a monopoly on dealing with life’s big questions. Although many students may take a religious approach to these questions, many other students will not. It is the student’s choice.
Bulletin: What is the most important question left to answer with higher education research?
Astin: I think that we need to ask ourselves: What are the forms of engagement and involvement that are most effective and most powerful for particular individuals? One size doesn’t fit all. Yet, there has been little work done to sort out if you have a certain type of student, what will work to get that student involved. In a way, kind of matching the particular form of involvement with the student. It is something we have neglected in the research and need to explore.
Bulletin: What will be the most significant change in higher education in the next 10 years?
Astin: What do we want to be the most important change? And how do we realize that? That’s the real question. We are engaged in it. We are not just passersby. That is my way of dealing with a question like that.