Academic journal article College and University

Colleges as Total Institutions: Implications for Admission, Orientation, and Student Life

Academic journal article College and University

Colleges as Total Institutions: Implications for Admission, Orientation, and Student Life

Article excerpt


The authors make a reasoned case for extending the concept of "total institution" to colleges and universities, using such characteristics as isolation, activities, location, and unity of focused goals. The implications for admissions officers of life in "total

institution" are discussed vis-a-vis development of self

Colleges and universities share many common characteristics with other organizations in modern society. However, colleges and universities also differ from many other institutions in critical ways. These differences are often lost on people who focus on the similarities of colleges and other organizations and argue that methods used to market products or services can be applied easily to colleges. By recognizing where colleges fit into one recognized taxonomy of social institutions we can understand better how college marketing, admissions processes, orientation, and student life programs can be administered more successfully.

In categorizing social institutions, sociologists identify the degree to which an institution envelops all aspects of an individual's life, that is, how much an organization conforms to what sociologist Erving Goffman (1961) referred to as a "total institution." The concept of the total institution is based on its form, structure, and influence. It represents a powerful tool for understanding how individuals relate to an organization and to each other within the organization, how they develop as persons within an organization, and how organizations differ from one another.

Many colleges and universities approximate total institutions. This observation has important ramifications for the administration of colleges. In this article total institutions are discussed as a generic type of organization. This concept is applied to colleges and universities, noting where colleges fit into the various types of total institutions. Finally, the authors examine the implications of conceiving of colleges as total institutions for the management of student-related functions in colleges.

Characteristics of Total Institutions

The primary characteristic of a total institution is that people carry out all of their activities in the same place and in the immediate company of the same group of other persons (Goffman 1961). Total institutions both envelop their members (Goffman's word, for reasons that will become obvious, is "inmates") and isolate them from other institutions. Life in a total institution is highly scheduled and very closely monitored by an administrative staff, and all activities are organized to fit the goals of the institution. This is directly at odds with most of modern life where adults segregate work, sleep, and play, and where some places are designated as private space. (Even children of elementary and secondary school age spend major portions of their lives in separate institutions-home, school, daycare, church, independent athletic leagues, and arts classes.)

Goffman's concept has most often been applied by others to "negative" institutions-those dealing with "problem" populations such as mental institutions (Goffman 1961), prisons (Farrington 1992), or homeless shelters (Stark 1994). It is perhaps this perceived negativity that has limited the application of the concept to a wider variety of institutions, including colleges. However, "It]he issue is not 'good' institutions contrasted to 'bad'; it is rather, the broadly supported power of institutions like prisons and prep schools to create and sustain a complete culture in which their goals can be met without the inevitable distractions of the "outside world" (Mitchell 1991). Thus, it is neither the purpose of the institution nor the type of person contained within it that makes it a total institution; it is rather the structure and organization of the institution.

A variety of social organizations exhibit the basic criteria that Goffman established for total institutions: prisons, the military, monasteries/convents, hospitals, retirement/nursing homes, wilderness research stations, summer camps, ships, families (for young children), boarding schools, and colleges. …

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