Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Attitude Change in College Students: Examining the Effect of College Peer Groups and Faculty Groups

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Attitude Change in College Students: Examining the Effect of College Peer Groups and Faculty Groups

Article excerpt

The link between reference group theory and the study of college students dates back to the initial development of the reference group concept. Though Hyman has been widely credited with first introducing the concept of reference groups in 1942, one of the most widely cited studies that illustrates the normative effect of reference groups is Newcomb's (1943) study of Bennington College women during the late 1930s. This pioneering study explains the observed change in political attitudes of women at Bennington as the function of their acceptance of and orientation to the college as a positive reference group (Newcomb, 1947). Follow-up studies of these women suggest that the changes attributed to the reference group are likely to persist over time (Newcomb, 1968; Alvin, Cohen, & Newcomb, 1991).

The idea of peer and/or reference group effects is a theoretical cornerstone of many of the studies of college impact beginning with Newcomb in 1943 and continuing in to the late 1960s. However, during the decade of the 1970s, this area of intellectual inquiry seems to have fallen from vogue in the study of higher education. Weidman's (1979) study of the impact of college on students' values is a notable exception. Using longitudinal student data and data gathered from faculty at the same institutions, these analyses examined the relative importance of student background characteristics, normative and interpersonal characteristics of college departments, and students' involvement in curricular and extracurricular activities in predicting changes in undergraduates' values. While the study findings confirmed the primary role played by students' background characteristics in studies of college impact, they also indicated that the normative environment created by faculty at the departmental level influences the values of students during their time in college (Weidman, 1979).

Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s (e.g., see Dey, 1988, 1991; Milem, 1992/1993, 1994), we see renewed interest in the study of peer and reference group effects. Astin's (1993) recent major work may signal the beginning of an era of revitalized interest in the study of the effects of peer groups on various student outcomes. One of the strengths of this new series of peer group studies is that they attempt to study peer and reference group effects through analyses of data collected at the multi-institutional level.

The goal of this study is to continue to enhance our understanding regarding the efficacy of peer groups and faculty reference groups in the socialization process of college students. It examines the relative impact of peer groups and faculty reference groups at the institutional level in changes in student attitudes and personal goal orientations across two related dimensions. Specifically, it examines changes in students' views regarding: (1) the belief that the wealthy should pay more taxes and (2) the personal importance of the goal of being very well off financially. These dependent variables were chosen because of the belief that each sits at opposing ends of two related continua that are of consequence in the study of college impact. The first continuum relates to the sociopolitical attitudes of students (Astin, 1993; Feldman & Newcomb, 1969; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). The first item represents a more "liberal" point of view, whereas the later item is characteristic of a more "conservative" viewpoint. The second continuum that is represented by these items involves the extent to which students have an orientation toward "others" as compared to an orientation toward "self" (Levine, 1980; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). The first item suggests a greater orientation toward others, whereas the second item indicates a greater orientation toward self. Hence, given the divergent relationship that these measures have with each other, the measures of the peer and faculty normative climates included in this study are expected to relate to each of these dependent variables in "opposite" ways. …

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