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Characteristics, Experiences, and Outcomes

Kristen A. Renn

Robert D. Reason

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Figure 0.1  Astin’s I-E-O Model 
Figure 6.1  Bronfenbrenner’s Ecology Model Applied to College Students 
Figure 7.1  Reconceptualized Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity 
Figure 8.1  Tinto’s Model of Voluntary Student Departure 
Figure 8.2  Bean and Eaton’s Psychological Model of Student Departure 
Figure 8.3    Terenzini and Reason’s Parsing the First Year of College Model 


Table 1.1  Enrollment by Sex and Race 
Table 2.1  Access, Admissions Practices, and Other Considerations in the College Choice Process in American Higher Education History 
Table 7.1  Summary of Erikson’s Developmental Stages 
Table 7.2    Marcia’s Ego Identity Statuses 


Higher education in the United States in the twenty-first century is exciting, daunting, and compelling. The goal of increasing the proportion of the U.S. population that goes to college and earns a degree is central to national higher education policy (Obama, 2009b). Participating in the global knowledge economy by attracting increasing numbers of international students is another goal that serves the interests of public policy and individual institutions (Altbach & Knight, 2007). A central mission of the student affairs profession entails understanding and supporting the success of this increasingly diverse student population (American College Personnel Association, n.d.; National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, n.d.). Administrators outside student affairs, as well as policymakers in the public sector and others, are concerned about improving student learning and degree attainment. As former student affairs administrators and current faculty in higher education graduate programs, we think a lot about what professionals need to know about college students and their experiences to achieve these missions.

For decades, student affairs and higher education graduate programs in the United States have included courses on “The American College Student.” Perhaps the mythical “American college student”—we will call him John—still exists: a full-time student who came directly to college from high school, John lives in the residence halls, works on campus ten hours a week, and takes a full course load that has him on track to graduate in four years with a bachelor’s degree from a selective public university. John is white, Christian, heterosexual, middle class, and without disabilities, the quintessential “American college student” of big-man-on-campus lore. We argue that given changed and changing demographics and environments, it would be a mistake to produce a text on the “American college student.” Certainly, educators must still attend to the thousands of “Johns” (and, more often, “Janes”), but the majority of undergraduates in the United States are not like John. They engage in nonlinear attendance patterns; go to community colleges; take courses (or entire degrees) online; attend for-profit institutions; come from underrepresented racial, ethnic, and religious groups; speak a first language other than English; work between high school and college; work thirty-plus hours a week during college; are international students; raise families; negotiate accommodations for disabilities; or do not complete their intended educational goals. They barely resemble John or Jane, except in their desire to improve their lives through higher education.

We wrote this book, College Students in the United States, to account for contemporary and anticipated student demographics and enrollment patterns; a wide variety of campus environments (such as residential, commuter, online, and hybrid); and a range of outcomes including learning, development, and achievement. We organize the book around Alexander Astin’s Inputs-Environment-Outputs (I-E-O) framework (1993b). Student demographics, college preparation, and enrollment patterns are the “inputs.” The transition to college and campus environments is the substance of the “environment.” Student development; learning; and retention, persistence, and completion are the “outputs.”

The enduring I-E-O framework provides both a useful organizing frame for the book and a meaningful component of the book itself. No matter how much students and campus environments change, the I-E-O model offers an approach to describe, explain, and explore students’ experience in U.S. higher education. We build on this foundation by providing relevant contemporary information and analysis of students, environments, and outcomes. We also provide strategies for readers to project forward in anticipation of higher education trends and to develop skills to update knowledge as needed in a world in which understanding “college students in the United States” is an ongoing project. By consolidating foundational and new research and theory on college students, their experiences, and student outcomes in the United States, we aim to provide educators and students themselves with knowledge to inform policies, programs, curriculum, and practice.

Astin’s I-E-O Model

Astin (1977, 1993b) proposed a framework for understanding how college affects students. Although he had worked on these ideas for several years, his iterations of the model in the 1977 book Four Critical Years and the 1993 book What Matters in College? Four Critical Years Revisited remain foundational sources for understanding studies of college students. In the most basic formulation, the framework lays out a longitudinal model that incorporates inputs (I), the college environment (E), and outputs (O) (see Figure 0.1).



Source: Assessment for Excellence (p. 18), by Alexander W. Astin, 1993, Phoenix: The Oryx Press. Copyright 1993 by The Oryx Press. Reproduced with permission from the American Council on Education.

According to the I-E-O model, students enter college with a collection of input characteristics (such as gender, race, academic ability, and learning style) and measurable attributes (for example, interest in public service, inclination to seek out interactions with diverse others, political viewpoints). Precollege environments (family and school, for instance) and college environments (including courses, peers, living arrangements, and interactions with faculty) can be measured according to a number of factors of interest. Then researchers and educators can examine a variety of outputs, more commonly called “outcomes” today. The I-E-O model implies a longitudinal perspective—it follows a student from before college until, ideally, graduation and beyond.

Importantly, the I-E-O model considers the effects of both inputs and environments on outcomes, as well as the effects of inputs on interactions in the environment. It provides a framework for understanding that some input characteristics—for example, high school GPA—may have as much or more to do with outcomes—such as persistence from the first to the second year—than anything that happens in the college environment. As well, the I-E-O model provides a framework for examining how such input characteristics as motivation for learning or social interaction may interact in the environment to cause a student to, for example, choose to live in a residential college or a fraternity house, both of which have consequences for outcomes (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, 2005).

When Astin developed the model (see Astin 1970a, 1970b, 1977, 1991, 1993b), student outcomes assessment was not as well developed a field as it is today, and he noted that there was an overabundance of studies claiming causal relationships between college environments and student outcomes, without accounting for student inputs. One reason for these overreaching causal claims lay in the reality that higher education settings do not lend themselves easily to experimental designs with random assignment of participants to intervention and control groups. Astin thus developed the I-E-O model “to address the basic methodological problem with all nonexperimental studies in the social sciences, namely the nonrandom assignment of people (inputs) to programs (environments)” (Astin & Sax, 1998, p. 252).

For example, if a vice president of student life wants to know about the effects of residential college (RC) participation on student motivation to learn (see Jessup-Anger, 2012), she cannot simply measure fourth-year students who participate in an RC and compare their motivation to that of fourth-year students who do not participate. Such factors as precollege characteristics (high school GPA, SAT score, first-generation status) and who signs up to participate in such a community in the first place (students seeking involvement in learning, for example) may be related to an outcome, such as motivation, as measured years later. In addition, she cannot simply compare the fourth-year students to first-year students in the RC; the samples do not account for variations in motivation to learn that the separate groups of students may have on entry, or other factors that may facilitate or impair their full engagement in the RC experience. The I-E-O model calls on the vice president (or, more likely, her staff) to measure motivation to learn at the beginning of the first year (input), aspects of the RC (environment), and motivation to learn of the same group of students in their fourth year (outcome).

A more ideal research design would include a matched sample (for example, students with similar background characteristics) of first-year students not in the RC, whose motivation could then be compared in the fourth year to that of the group of RC students. The vice president could then determine to what extent any observed gains in motivation to learn of the RC students would have happened even if they had not participated in the RC. Such designs are, unfortunately, too rare, owing perhaps to a predominance of convenience sampling in student affairs research. But when enough same data are collected from enough people, results similar to those of the pre-post, matched sample design can be achieved through statistical means, allowing researchers to make claims about the effect of specific experiences (for example, participating in a diversity course) on specific populations (such as students of different racial backgrounds).

The archetype of I-E-O research is the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), located at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). Founded by Alexander Astin and now led by Sylvia Hurtado, HERI has for over forty-five years collected data about college students and their experiences. Of course, the research questions one can answer are limited by the data that have been collected. Still, there are hundreds of studies published out of this valuable research resource (see The I-E-O model is at the center of it all.

Certainly HERI’s longitudinal CIRP surveys and data represent a type of “gold standard” in research on the impact of college on students, but the I-E-O concept provides a guiding framework for studies of many types. Qualitative studies of student learning and development that follow a longitudinal approach can provide rich data about how environments act on and with students to influence outcomes. Institutional research outside of the CIRP surveys can track student inputs and, for example, curricula, to point to meaningful experiences during college that seem to produce differential outcomes. The I-E-O model is a fairly intuitive framework that reminds researchers to look at characteristics of incoming students and features of the environment when examining a range of outcomes. We discuss the I-E-O model as a framework for outcomes assessment in more detail in Chapter Nine.

Purpose of the Book

We wrote this book to bring together in one place essential information about college students in the United States in the early twenty-first century. Synthesizing existing research and theory, we present an introduction to studying student characteristics, college choice and enrollment patterns, institutional types and environments, student development, persistence, and outcomes of college. We intend this text to be a starting point for graduate students and others who seek a foundational understanding of the diversity of students and institutions in the United States. We include discussion points, learning activities, and further resources for exploring the topics in each chapter. We assume that some readers—perhaps those who will work most closely with college students—will seek additional depth in some topics. Other readers—perhaps those who will work in areas of higher education outside student affairs—may find the book adequate to meet their needs as administrators or policymakers.

Organization of the Book

Because the I-E-O model provides a “wrap-around” framework for examining college students in the United States, we found it a useful way to organize this book. The book can be read in I-E-O order, or readers may find it useful to read selected chapters in some other order. As already noted, the interactions in the environment connect the input characteristics to output measures. These concepts can be understood as separate but closely related; indeed there are entire cottage industries of scholarship in each area (inputs, environment, outputs). Scholars working in different traditions (including qualitative or quantitative) approach the relationships among inputs, environment, and outputs differently, though we have chosen a fairly straightforward organization for the book that leads from precollege to college choice, enrollment patterns, transition to college, college environments, student development in college, retention and persistence, and student outcomes.

Part One, Inputs, begins with Chapter One, in which we provide an overview of the diversity of students attending two-year and four-year institutions. Chapter Two outlines the college choice process, that is, how students decide whether or not to go to college and then what college to attend. Chapter Three describes student enrollment patterns, including the nonlinear, stop-and-start “double dipping,” “stopping out,” and “swirling” patterns that are increasingly common.

Part Two, Environments, describes the student experience from the transition to college onward. Chapter Four explains the transition to college and what is known about the ways that the transition varies across student demographic groups. Chapter Five describes and applies an ecological lens to understanding institutional types, campus climate, and other aspects of the campus environment. Chapter Six includes holistic and ecological approaches to college student development, including self-authorship. Chapter Seven highlights key student development theories in the areas of cognitive, moral, and psychosocial development, including racial, gender, and sexual orientation identity development models.

Part Three, Outcomes, describes what happens to students as a result of attending college. Chapter Eight addresses critical elements of student retention and persistence, which are necessary but not sufficient for student success and degree completion. Chapter Nine describes specific student outcomes in several areas (including cognitive, moral, civic, and identity development as well as self-authorship) and general approaches to assessing student outcomes. Chapter Ten synthesizes the I-E-O approach to understanding our new vision of “the American college student” under the more inclusive description of “college students in the United States” in the twenty-first century.

At the end of each chapter we offer discussion points directed at implications for students, for institutions, and for policy and national discourse. These questions are intended to serve as starting points for discussion. They might also be useful to some readers as prompts to consider before and during the readings. We also provide one or more learning activities in each chapter as starting points for instructors to help students connect theory to practice. Finally, we provide additional resources, often online sources, for further exploration of the topics of each chapter. We sought stable Web sites that are likely to remain reliable sources of information over time, even as their content is updated by the sites’ owners. We hope that the discussion points, learning activities, and additional resources provide instructors, students, and other interested readers with ways to connect theory and knowledge to higher education practice and policy. To begin that process, we invite readers to consider the following questions while reading the book:

  • What assumptions do you hold about college students in the United States?
  • What do you want to learn about college students, environments, and outcomes?
  • How will this knowledge improve your contribution to higher education?
  • In a time of rapid change, how will you continue to stay abreast of changes in college students, environments, and outcomes?
  • What groups of students or types of institutions are missing from this book? How will you identify new populations coming to college and create learning environments that support their success? What new institutional types—or changes to existing types—will emerge to meet their needs?
  • What student outcomes can and should higher education institutions demonstrate to various stakeholders (for example, students, families, and members of the public)? How can they do so?


Arriving at the final manuscript of a new book provides an occasion for reflection and gratitude. We undertook this project at the invitation of our colleague and friend John Schuh, a scholar and educator whose work we have both admired throughout our careers. We appreciate his encouragement, mentoring, and editing. As we progressed from proposal to drafts to final manuscript, the book took on a life of its own and we came to rely on one another, our colleagues, our students, and our families, as we worked to fulfill our vision of what College Students in the United States could and should be. We thank them for their wisdom, insight, and patience.

A few people deserve particular mention here. At Michigan State, doctoral student G. Blue Brazelton committed untold hours to searching literature, managing and formatting references, and composing end-of-chapter matter. Karla Loya, Penn State University doctoral student, and Chad Kee, Iowa State University doctoral student, participated in all facets of the writing process as well. Karla and Chad were instrumental in the completion of Chapter Two of this book. We deeply appreciate their hard work and hope that the experience has contributed in some way to their learning.

In addition, Kristen thanks colleagues and students at Michigan State, who since 2001 have provided an optimal environment in which to think, write, and teach about student affairs and higher education. I also thank my former colleagues in the Office of Student Life at Brown University for the foundation they provided for my continued work in the field. Particular thanks are due to mentors Tamie Kiddess Lucey, Robin Rose, Mark Nahorney, and Karen Arnold. New perspectives on higher education emerge as my nieces and nephews embark into it; I thank them for letting Aunt Kristen be nosy and ask lots of questions. I see them throughout this book. My sister, Amy Renn, continues to teach me about the important work of student support services at for-profit institutions. I thank my partner, Melissa McDaniels, for reminding me that much of higher education exists beyond what happens in student affairs, and much of life exists beyond what happens in and at work. Finally, I thank my friend and colleague Bob for undertaking this project with me and being such a great collaborator.

Robert thanks colleagues, friends, and students at Penn State and Iowa State Universities, who informed and pushed my thinking on the students in American higher education. I must provide special acknowledgment to my mentor, colleague, and friend Pat Terenzini, who during my nine years at Penn State University nurtured in me a of love of learning, a pride in precision, and an appreciation of high-quality research within the broad literature that is higher education. Early in our relationship, Pat reminded me that “sometimes you must say ‘no’ to the good, so you can say ‘yes’ to the great.” Writing this book with Kris was certainly “the great,” and I appreciate the opportunity to work with and learn from her. Finally, I must thank Andra, Elliot, and Ava, who gave of their time to allow me to complete this project, but did not let me forget what was most important.

It is a true joy to engage deeply in a topic that engenders one’s passion, a topic that is both interesting and important. Certainly the study of college students in the United States—who they are, what they experience, and how they learn—is such a topic for us.


Kristen A. Renn is professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University. Her areas of research and teaching lie in student development, student affairs, and campus environments. Dr. Renn holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Mount Holyoke College, a master’s degree in educational leadership from Boston University, and a doctoral degree in higher education from Boston College. She started her professional career in student activities at Wheaton College in Massachusetts and worked for ten years as a dean in the Office of Student Life at Brown University. Dr. Renn has published extensively on the topics of mixed-race college students, LGBTQ issues in higher education, student leaders in identity-based organizations, and new professionals in student affairs. She has extended her work on college students in the United States to consider international contexts for creating learning environments, including a multinational study of women’s colleges and universities. Dr. Renn’s contributions to scholarly and professional communities of practice in student affairs and higher education include editorial roles with the Journal of Higher Education, Academe, and the Journal of College Student Development, and leadership in the American College Personnel Association (ACPA), the Association for the Study of Higher Education, and the American Education Research Association. She is an ACPA Senior Scholar.

Robert D. Reason is an associate professor of student affairs and higher education at Iowa State University. From 2003 to 2011 he was an associate professor of education at Penn State University, where he also held an appointment as senior research associate in Penn State’s Center for the Study of Higher Education. Dr. Reason holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Grinnell College in Iowa; a master’s degree in counseling and college student development from Minnesota State University, Mankato; and a doctoral degree in higher education from Iowa State University. Dr. Reason studies college student outcomes, including how institutional policies, practices, and climates affect these outcomes. Dr. Reason has been particularly interested in first-year student outcomes, completing two national studies of first-year student outcomes (with Patrick Terenzini) while at Penn State University. His research has been published in the Journal of College Student Development, Research in Higher Education, and the Review of Higher Education. He currently serves as director of research for the Core Commitments Initiative for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, as a National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Faculty Fellow, and as an ACPA Senior Scholar.