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Reviewed by:
  • Four Critical Years: Effects of College on Beliefs, Attitudes, and Knowledge by Alexander W. Astin
  • Nicholas A. Bowman
Four Critical Years: Effects of College on Beliefs, Attitudes, and Knowledge
Alexander W. Astin
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1977, 312 pages, $35.93 (softcover)

This retrospective book review looks back at one of the most influential and ambitious books examining college student outcomes: Four Critical Years: Effects on Beliefs, Attitudes, and Knowledge (Astin, 1977). The book has a “sequel” that is perhaps better known today: What Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited (Astin, 1993). Four Critical Years stands out for its unique contribution at the time in which it was published. In this review, I will provide a summary of the book’s content, discuss its contribution and influence on subsequent research, describe how higher education literature has moved forward since that time, and conclude with whether this book should be assigned in today’s student affairs and higher education graduate programs.

Before beginning this discussion, it is crucial to consider the technological context in which this book was written. Here are a few points of interest:

  • • Alexander Astin had someone else type the book for him, perhaps because word processing programs (as we think of them today) were not widely available during the mid–1970s (Haigh, 2006).

  • • Multilevel analyses appropriately examine both student-level and institutional-level predictors — were not developed until the late 1970s and 1980s (Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002).

  • • The first version of SPSS was released less than 10 years before the publication of the book: it is not clear which software program was used, but SAS was not released until 1976, and Stata was released in 1985. The original version of SPSS used punchcards, while the 1975 version instead used “mainframes with a client terminal” (Stauber, 2018, para. 3). This mainframe probably filled a large room.

  • • Computers that were released in 2016 had approximately 1 million times more computing power than those from 1976 (e.g., Roser, 2017). Thus, conducting numerous multiple regression analyses with thousands of participants and dozens of independent variables would have taken a very, very long time.


Astin describes the impressive scope of the book in the first chapter. Data were obtained from over 200,000 students at more than 300 institutions who completed the Freshman Survey from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) in 1966–1969 (or the survey’s predecessor in 1961). Depending upon the cohort, the follow-up surveys occurred during students’ first, second, third, fourth, fifth, or tenth year from the start of their undergraduate studies. Most analyses contained a small proportion of this large population that focused on a particular follow-up [End Page 245] year (many of the analyses examined change from the Freshman Survey to the senior year). Additional analyses were conducted separately by sex and academic ability (as measured via high school GPA or standardized test score), along with some subgroup analyses by race/ethnicity and age. Astin classified the various outcomes in this large-scale study as affective versus cognitive and as psychological versus behavioral. Several outcome variables were used for each combination of outcome type; for instance, affective psychological outcomes consisted of self-concept, values, attitudes, beliefs, drive for achievement, and satisfaction with college. The introductory chapter argues convincingly for the contribution of this study, especially given the rarity of multi-institutional and longitudinal samples in prior research.

The next five chapters describe and interpret the results of the numerous analyses, organized by broad outcome category: attitudes, beliefs, and self-concept (chapter 2); patterns of behavior (chapter 3); competency and achievement, which includes college retention and graduation (chapter 4); career develop ment, including the movement from one major or field of study to another (chapter 5); and satisfaction with the college environ ment (chapter 6). Each chapter starts by describing the specific outcomes that fall into these broad categories. An item-level analysis explores whether each of these outcomes has increased or decreased over time, particularly from the first year to the senior year (and sometimes across various years). Astin then presents results from the stepwise regression analyses that were organized into three different blocks (or groups...


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pp. 245-249
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